Column: Coach our coaches

Great coaches are more important than great players. Here’s why… writes RYAN VREDE in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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A coach’s overall aptitude is the most critical determinant to a team’s success. Save your smoke. Allow me to explain.

Of course the players at his disposal are important, but extracting their maximum potential requires a coach who has a broad range of elite skills, including having an extremely high level of emotional intelligence and being tactically astute at levels that trump the majority of his counterparts.

They also build teams of assistant and specialist coaches that supplement areas in which they may lack. These men amplify the team’s potential for success.

Finally, they harness the influence of leaders in the playing group to drive the culture they want to create and assist in implementing the efficient outworking of their tactical philosophy.

Great coaches can make teams compromised by a high percentage of average players successful, whatever their definition of success.

Average coaches often struggle even with teams comprised of a high percentage of great players. This is because leadership matters more than player talent.

I write about this because there is still a strong school of thought that it’s the players, not the coaches, who determine a team’s success or failure. People still point the finger at players for, among other flaws, a lack of effort, inadequate skills or their inability to understand the tactical framework they are asked to operate within.

I disagree completely. A great coach will make average players better. In a rugby context, that assertion is supported in the brilliant Chasing the Sun documentary. Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus embodies most of the characteristics of a great coach and those qualities functioned to make a team that wasn’t laden with world-class talent the world champions.

In fact, a strong argument could be made that this Springbok team was the least talented of the three that have won a World Cup. The 2007 side, featuring future Hall of Famers like Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger and Percy Montgomery, among a clutch of others, were by some distance the most talented group to lift the cup.
That was an example of a highly gifted player base being coached by a highly gifted coach, Jake White.

This wasn’t the case for the 2019 group, who only had a few players you’d pick in a World XV. Cheslin Kolbe, no doubt. Eben Etzebeth would have a strong shout, as would Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermuelen and Handre Pollard. Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager and Malcolm Marx are gifted, but not certainties in a World XV.

This was a side that relied heavily on the excellence of their coach, Erasmus, to wring out every drop of potential they possessed. Individually they were largely average, but their collective efforts were immense. Erasmus’ influence on the new Bok coach, Jacques Nienaber, is the reason they’ll beat the British & Irish Lions comfortably next year. That is the work of a great coach.

These types of coaches populate the sporting world. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp won the 2019 Champions League with a collection of players, the majority of whom would not make a World XI. He followed that up with Premier League and World Club Cup victories in the 2019-20 season with largely the same group of players.

Bill Bellichick built an NFL dynasty with the New England Patriots despite his side consistently paling in the talent stakes. Carlo Ancellotti has transformed Napoli’s and most recently Everton’s collection of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers into very good football sides. White is doing wonderful work as the new Bulls’ head coach.

These coaches are few and far between. Sadly, in a rugby context, I don’t see many in South African professional rugby besides those mentioned. The Stormers’ John Dobson has potential, but I’m not sure whether that potential will bloom into the type of greatness I describe here. I hope it does.

One of Erasmus’ key goals as the director of rugby must be to clone himself. Of course each coach will have unique strengths and weaknesses, but he has to create a system that facilitates the development of the world’s best coaches.

The more truly great coaches we build, the more likely it is South African franchise teams will thrive in whatever competitions they play in, and that the Boks can dominate for large cycles in Test rugby.

Coaches matter more than too many care to acknowledge. The sooner we stop blaming players for their shortcomings and look to remedy the root cause of those shortcomings, the better.

*This column first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Ryan Vrede