The shock announcement by Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber that he will be joining Irish powerhouse Leinster after the Rugby World Cup has raised some real fears for the Springboks ahead of the next World Cup cycle.
One of the biggest parts of the Springbok success under Rassie Erasmus as Director of Rugby has been the fact that all parts of the national set-up have been aligned. From schoolboy level to Springbok, the pipeline has been aligned with a lot of shared intellectual property flowing through the organisation.
And while that may not always be apparent to the general public, behind the scenes there is a uniformity in the way the national teams work that has been beneficial for South Africa and has delivered a World Cup and British and Irish Lions series triumph.
But the question that needs to be asked now after Nienaber’s announcement is what the national team’s set-up will look like after the end of this World Cup cycle?
While much of the focus has been on who will succeed Nienaber as coach, the bigger question will be whether Rassie Erasmus also stays or whether he moves on to another challenge after the six year cycle.
Because to be clear, that will determine what the future of Springbok rugby will look like.
It’s been no secret that Rassie has entertained thoughts of another challenge after the Boks. Leicester Tigers have targeted him, and his name was bandied about for the England job.
He admitted in an interview with the Daily Mail that he is keen for a new challenge, but stopped short of saying where.
?? Coaching announcement: Jacques Nienaber will conclude his #Springboks tenure in France. "My sole focus is on seeing the Boks defend the Rugby World Cup title this year" - more here: https://t.co/GPmuUSVaYm#StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/QETWzjp5Px — Springboks (@Springboks) April 15, 2023
“I always believe that CEOs and coaches don't fire coaches. Fans fire coaches, and the media feels what the fans are thinking and put pressure on. I'm very open that if it doesn't go as well as it should the fans might want somebody else. If it goes like that, I understand, but if it goes lekker then that's great,” he told the Daily Mail.
“I would like to have another go somewhere. I'm 50. I think I've got another stint in me. If it's here in South Africa, then great, fantastic, but I also understand it has to come to an end somewhere.”
CONTINUITY. CERTAINTY AND A CLEAR VISION
It is key to note that Erasmus has a clause in his contract that said that if Jurie Roux were to leave as SA Rugby CEO that he would be free to leave before the end of his contract as well. While he hasn’t given an indication on his future either way, Nienaber’s decision has raised speculation about Erasmus’s future as well.
When looking at the Springbok success over the past few years, it is very true that this alignment came about with Erasmus having the backing of Roux, and his close partnership with Nienaber as they directed the team through some choppy waters.
Two thirds of that equation will be gone by the end of the World Cup and if Erasmus joins them, it would mean the top hierarchy of professional rugby in the country would be gone as well.
Any top professional sporting organisation runs on continuity, certainty and a clear vision. Without those three at the helm, a significant amount of intellectual property would be lost to SA Rugby.
So all the talk of the next coach would be moot unless he has the same backing of a Director of Rugby and the CEO of SA Rugby in fulfilling his task as coach.
In the past there have been some clear examples where this alignment wasn’t there - think Allister Coetzee’s tenure for instance - and how that impacted on the performance of the national side.
The obvious succession plan would be for Deon Davids or Mzwandile Stick to take over, but again, without a Director of Rugby that would back them - if Erasmus leaves - they may find it difficult to fulfill their task. The same holds true of any other coach who has to come in and take over from the outside.
SA Rugby may be finding themselves starting anew. A new Director of Rugby would take time to find his feet, and the new Springbok coach won’t have much of a honeymoon from an expecting public.
As New Zealand learnt, appointing an assistant coach doesn’t always carry through the same vein of success if the environment isn’t right.
Of course if Erasmus chooses to stay, then Davids or Stick would be a continuation of the same coaching thread and the system would stay in place. Continuity would be ensured and the team can continue building on the work of the past six years.
Nienaber’s announcement was a shock in its timing, but not really unexpected. Generally most coaches decide to move on after a World Cup. They may not have said it, but if Erasmus and Nienaber moved on after two World Cup cycles, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
The real question now - before a coach even comes into consideration - is what the succession plan is if Erasmus leaves? What will a handover entail? And will there be continuity in the system that he put in place? New personnel bring in new ideas and while that is a good thing at times, it can also take time to settle. How will SA Rugby navigate the period after the World Cup and is that succession plan in place?
These are all questions that should be asked in the next few months.
The hope is that it is communicated clearly and decisions are made well in advance of France 2023 so that the coaching team can give their full attention to the World Cup campaign.
In a sense Nienaber has done that already. It has been settled that he is leaving and that will alleviate some pressure on him ahead of the World Cup.
But with so much invested in the Springboks, and SA Rugby navigating its way through Roux’s departure, a new CEO could also have a new vision, and this could be very different to what we have seen in the recent past.
The need for certainty is something that SA Rugby will be well-aware of, and will be working hard behind the scenes to make the transition as smooth as possible.
But these questions will need to be answered sooner rather than later. It is in everybody’s best interest.