About the strangest thing SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus said at the coronation of his friend and long-time collaborator Jacques Nienaber as his replacement as Springbok head coach on Friday was that the buck stopped with him when it came to the team’s performance.
If that’s the case, then why hire a head coach?
And, if that’s the case, if things go seriously pear-shaped for the world champions during the course of Nienaber’s four-year contract, who would be first to go?
The head coach or the director of rugby?
For some reason, no journalists got around to interrogating what Erasmus meant by the statement, which he uttered three times – twice in English and once in Afrikaans – despite it being a 45-minute press conference.
Perhaps Erasmus’ explanation that he would be so hands-on as a director of rugby that he would still help new forwards coach Deon Davids coach line-outs and rucks, and would sit next to Nienaber in the coach’s box, was implied justification of why the World Cup-winning coach would think he was accountable.
There were two rather pertinent questions Erasmus got to confront head-on, however.
One was the fact that Nienaber has not been a head coach before; the other was that SA Rugby did not advertise the job to see what calibre of coach the new world champions could attract.
In his response to the first query, Erasmus challenged the assembled media to do their due diligence by interviewing some of the members of his former staff and players about their opinions on whether Nienaber was the right man for the job.
While he admitted that they probably would have unearthed a better coach than Nienaber by advertising the post, he insisted that the most important thing for the Springboks right now was continuing from where they left off last year.
The rationale is that starting with a new coach would mean a lot of unintended changes – like the composition of the coaching staff, players and playing style – which, in turn, would rob the team of valuable time as they were bedded down.
As ever in a divided South Africa, news of Nienaber’s appointment drew mixed reactions. Rumours that Nienaber would be appointed began as early as October, and there was barely a murmur from one section of the rugby public, while the other was vocal in its criticism to the point of hinting at nepotism (no more prizes for guessing which section is which).
While one can see where the complaints are coming from, the fact that we all heavily criticised Erasmus being given the director of rugby and Bok head coaching jobs – and an unprecedented six-year contract – when he was appointed in 2018 should be kept in mind.
In the end, there was a lot of foresight in the move, the significant part of which was a surprise World Cup win last year.
Also, we have to remember that the things that Erasmus has been shown to care about – winning, transformation, consistency and long-term planning – are things we all feel strongly about.
So, rightly or wrongly, Erasmus and SA Rugby are eschewing processes in the hopes of maintaining the momentum they’ve built up in the first two years of their association.
There will come a time when we’ll have to revisit whether too much alignment in a management group can lead to an insular approach, but we all have to concede that it has worked for this team so far.
And for those still dissatisfied about the manner in which the new Springbok coach was appointed, just remember: that position has never been a place to hide.