Talking Point: Losing laager mentality is a massive step for SA

rugby30 January 2024 06:51| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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If the story is true, and there’s reason to believe it is because it comes from a writer who is usually spot on, then Rassie Erasmus has come up with a masterstroke that could just take his Springboks up another level in this four year World Cup cycle.

The reference is to the story in Rapport newspaper at the weekend that Erasmus, who unfortunately is indisposed currently after a freak accident at home involving chemicals, is poised to announce former All Black and Highlanders flyhalf Tony Brown and former Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery as assistant coaches.

Brown, who played a big part in the development of the likes of Butch James when Dick Muir lured him to the Sharks in 2006, is slated to look after the attack and the backline. Flannery is the man apparently earmarked to take over the defence responsibilities from head coach Jacques Nienaber, who is now serving as a senior assistant to Leo Cullen at Leinster in Ireland.


Actually, let’s pause on Nienaber’s move for a moment. Bringing in Nienaber as essentially his right hand man was a masterstroke on the part of Cullen, and one that shouldn’t just benefit his team. Ireland should also benefit as the core of the Ireland national team that starts its Six Nations defence against the formidable French on Friday plays for Leinster.

So the core of the Ireland team that lost in the quarterfinal stage of last year’s World Cup after starting out as one of the favourites is now benefitting from the IP of a South African coach who won the competition. I am sure it is not what Nienaber intended, but his knowledge of the Boks and the players is sure to be a factor when Ireland come to this country in July to play an eagerly awaited series against Nienaber’s former team.


A South African who has had a more official role in the Ireland team is Gert Smal, a much respected and feared former Bok and Western Province flanker who, after winning the World Cup as part of Jake White’s management team in 2007, served as Ireland assistant coach for a few years. When Smal took up his position as WP director of rugby on his return to Cape Town, he spoke often about the benefits of what he called the cross-pollination of ideas inspired by having different nationalities working together in a coaching team.

It was why he initially appointed Eddie Jones to take over as WP and Stormers coach when Allister Coetzee left in 2015, and then when Jones was released to coach England, he fought so hard to bring in former All Black coach John Mitchell.

At the time Smal’s attitude was a refreshing switch away from the xenophobic attitude that has too long kept South African rugby back. Had he got his way, the Stormers might not have taken so long to dig themselves out of the morass (which obviously they have done now under John Dobson) and his tenure as DOR might have turned out differently.


When I refer to xenophobia my memory is triggered by two things - one being the antipathy to Eddie Jones when he served as an assistant to White in the 2007 World Cup triumph. It will be recalled that wing Bryan Habana gave Jones his Bok blazer as Jones wasn’t allowed to wear one even though he was a senior member of the management.

The second was Harry Viljoen’s experience when he was Bok coach. Viljoen’s short stint wasn’t hugely successful but in many ways he was ahead of his time. If he’d been better understood, he might have accelerated the Bok evolution, but unfortunately he kept banging his head with conservative thinking.

He had former Wallaby assistant Tim Lane as his backs coach, and brought in two other Aussies, Les Kiss and Mick Byrne, as consultants. Both Byrne and Kiss went on to become great rugby union coaches, but there was a huge backlash to Viljoen’s flirtation with foreign input from within South African rugby.

Ironically, the then Cats coach, Laurie Mains, played a leading part in the opposition to Viljoen drawing on Australians . It was both ironic and weird because Mains of course was Kiwi, a former All Black coach, and also just happens to be a good example that being a foreigner doesn’t automatically mean you will be a raging success with a South African team.

Mains did lead the Lions to the Currie Cup title in 1999, but his tenure was a fractious one and Erasmus was one of the players who played for him at the Cats who didn’t get on with him.


There may have been a period where his experience with Mains might have made Erasmus negative towards the concept of drawing on foreign coaches, but his stint as Munster’s director of rugby changed that.

He returned to South Africa convinced that this country just wasn’t professional enough and didn’t understand professionalism, and I remember having a conversation with him in those early days where he punted Wayne Smith, the New Zealand attack guru, as someone he’d like to have on board as an assistant coach.

That didn’t happen, but he hasn’t been afraid to back foreign input in his back-room staff, with Felix Jones, now working with England as defence coach, playing an important but unsung role in the recent World Cup triumph, as did Andy Edwards, who is currently the Head of Athletic Performance at SA Rugby and was recruited from English club Saracens to replace another foreigner, Aled Walters, in 2020.

Erasmus’ stint at Munster opened his eyes, as Smal’s time with Ireland did, but if he gets Brown on board, it will be a next level appointment that might just make the Boks the unbeatable force that overseas coaches always fear they could become once the penny drops about what could be achieved if they become more all embracing in their playing style.


Make no mistake, the Boks have evolved. In the year before the World Cup in France they started to run back kick receipt with devastating effect. They couldn’t just rely on defence in their quarterfinal against France and would not have won that game had they not matched the opposing team’s three first half tries. And Jones can clearly take much credit.

However, if Brown is appointed it will be the first time the Boks have employed a specialist attack coach who is already a proven performer at international level. To my mind Swys de Bruin, previously Emirates Lions coach, did a good job in the first year of Erasmus’ tenure, but Brown, as a Kiwi who has also had a senior role with Japan, will bring out of the box thinking.

Those in the know have long admired the attacking innovation of Japan, who would be among the top teams if they had a decent forward pack.

“Imagine if Tony was coaching the Boks with their forward pack what could be achieved,” said someone who has coached with Brown after one of Japan’s more impressive performances.?Well, it looks like we might get to see it happen, and it might just lead the Boks to evolve into a team that adds significantly more to its attacking arsenal than their current potency in counter-attack and transition from broken play. The old reservation about the quality of the South African backs is no longer valid, indeed maybe it never was.


Erasmus would not get buy in from Brown, who he got to know when he coached him at the Stormers in 2008, if he did not sell him a good picture of the game he wants the Boks to play. , The upshot should be that the world champions become even more adaptable and capable of bringing different games to different challenges and conditions, as we saw at the World Cup, than they already are. And after winning successive World Cups, the introduction of something new, perhaps a different dynamic to the thought process, could be energiser the successful Bok camp needs.

There may be some who ask “But we are world champions, why would we need outside help?” The answer to that is that rugby is a sport that is constantly evolving, and while the Boks, with four World Cup titles in eight attempts, have proved themselves adept at playing tournament rugby, they’ve struggled to rule the world in the in between years.

The Brown and Flannery appointments, but Brown in particular, might be the catalyst for that growth and could see the Rugby Championship crown become as regular a resident in South Africa as the Webb Ellis trophy already is. Those appointments might just prove the point of difference between SA and the other members of the top four, Ireland, France and New Zealand being the others, over the next four years.