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27 November 2016

Touching Rock Bottom: Comparing the Crises at SA Rugby and Australia Cricket

Daniel Gallan

Two giants of world sport have recently felt the painful bump of reaching bedrock and now have to make some dramatic changes if they want to taste the glories of the past. South African rugby and Australian cricket sides used to command respect from opposition by virtue of their dominance. Today they are both facing unprecedented crises. CONQA Sport offers a way out for both of these once proud juggernauts. 

Eben Etzebeth, one of the few shining lights for the Springboks this year, reflects on another disappointing result.

Eben Etzebeth, one of the few shining lights for the Springboks this year, reflects on another disappointing result.

htraeE (Earth spelled backwards), otherwise known as Bizarro World, is a fictional planet in the DC Comics universe where everything in existence is weirdly inverted. The planet is a cube rather than the usual sphere and is bound by a code that states, “Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World.”

On this planet, Bizarro-Superman is evil, Bizarro-Batman is totally inept as a detective and Bizarro-Aquaman can’t swim. It’s a topsy-turvy realm where everything exists as it does in our world, only with polar opposite traits.

Fans of South African rugby and Australian cricket in November 2007 might be forgiven for assuming that we have somehow found ourselves in a parallel universe. Nine years ago, in stark contrast to the misery they both now endure, these sporting powerhouses had their respective world cup trophies safely locked away in their cabinets and were undoubtedly the supreme forces in their field.

The Australian cricketers had just won their third consecutive World Cup by trouncing all before them in the West Indies to go along with a 5-0 whitewash of England in the Ashes earlier in the year. With the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and the recently retired Shane Warne, this was an unstoppable force the likes of which had not been seen in the sport for over two decades.

As for the Springboks, they had outmuscled and outfought the rest of the world by claiming the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time in October that year. With Jake White driving John Smit, Victor Matfield, Percy Montgomery, Fourie du Preez and a litany of other legends who would be in contention for a spot in a greatest XV of all time, the Bok side of the previous generation were the last team capable of challenging the New Zealand hegemony that now looks set in stone.

Fast forward to today and things could not be more different. After losing three consecutive Tests in Sri Lanka and then five consecutive ODIs in South Africa, the Aussie cricketers have just lost a third consecutive home Test series to South Africa. 

To top it all off, the Australian press and some of their senior players have been fixated on the snacking habits of South Africa’s captain, Faf du Plessis in what smacks of the proverbial dead cat thrown on the table.

South African rugby is in arguably a more precarious situation. Over the past 18 months the Boks have had to endure a number of humiliating and unprecedented results. A first ever loss to Japan at last year’s World Cup has been followed by a first ever home defeat to Ireland, a first ever away defeat to Argentina, a record breaking 15-57 home defeat to the All Blacks, a first loss to England in a decade and a first ever defeat to Italy. Their recent 27-13 loss to Wales means that the Springboks have lost 8 Test matches in a calendar year for the first time in their history.

Bizarro times indeed for two of the world’s great athletic organisations. Both the Boks and the Baggy Greens must be yearning for the glories of yesteryear and, like many of us around the world, will no doubt look back on 2016 as one of the most disastrous in recent memory.

But as the old adage goes, bouncing back up can only occur once rock bottom has been reached and if these two giants have fallen from their lofty perches, there is no reason why they can’t climb themselves back up there. Below are a few ways in which to do so.

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has struggled to get the best out of his team and faces going down in history as the least succesful Bok coach of all time.

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has struggled to get the best out of his team and faces going down in history as the least succesful Bok coach of all time.

Focus on long term strategies

Social media warriors and members of the press looking for easy one-liners will glibly state that “things can’t get any worse” during periods of despair. That can be spun into a positive. If expectations are low and results are poor, struggling coaches of national teams that do not face the threat of relegation from a domestic league can hit the reset button and focus on long term strategy development and implementation.

It takes a brave coach or captain to look the media in the eye and state that immediate results do not matter. After all, elite sport is a cutthroat business and all involved are trained to stress the importance of winning every game, but if deftly played, this strategy of shifting the focus to long term wins can buy a coach time and ease the pressure that comes with the immediacy of results.

The Australians fielded three young debutants – Matt Renshaw (20), Peter Handscomb (26) and Nic Maddinson (21) - in their final match with South Africa, a clear sign they are building towards the future. The side had struggled with a brittle middle order and filling these positions with players who have the potential to occupy them for many years to come is a positive sign.

In contrast, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee showed a complete lack of faith in long term strategies by dropping the Lions’ dynamic half-back duo of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies after losing away to Australia and New Zealand in this year’s Rugby Championship.

The two lack international experience but had run the show en route to the Lions’ charge all the way to the Super Rugby final. Their enterprising style of play was the envy of all South African franchises and belied the stereotype that players from the Republic were incapable of playing an exciting brand of rugby.

However, old habits die hard and if the Springboks were going to undergo an identity change it was going to take time and it was going to be at the expense of positive results.

The media knew this, the South African rugby decision makers knew this, the players and coaches knew this and even the fans knew this. That did not stop impatience and frustration seeping in when things did not click straight away and the pressure to win immediately told as Coetzee reverted to type and axed what could have been a very promising axis in the heart of the field.

After those disappointing results, Coetzee drafted in Morne Steyn, the flyhalf with a reputation for a conservative style of play, in a desperate attempt to win. While Coetzee did get the result he was after by beating Australia 18-10 (all points courtesy of Steyn’s boot), his lack of faith in a long term strategy has seen the Boks regress.

Only in the recent match against Wales did Coetzee include a clutch of youngsters in his team with Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Jama Ulengo and Uzair Cassiem making their debuts. However, it appears that Coetzee threw these newbies together in a desperate attempt to give the impression of long term strategy.

It didn't work and and there is no doubt that the reverting to type around the Australian victory has contributed to the rot.

Trust in a game plan and be clear with your message

One of the chief bugbears of fans of the Springboks has been a lack of an apparent game plan from the coaching staff. Say what you want about Heyneke Meyer’s outdated strategy (and all the negativity surrounding it is entirely justified) but at least it was clear what he was trying to do.

Is there anything in this Bok team that has an obvious Coetzee stamp on it? From the way the defence is structured to the way the attack is coordinated, even the most eagle eyed rugby pundits are struggling to pinpoint just what Coetzee is trying to do with this team.

Many have pointed out what he has failed to do or what he should be doing, but it is very hard to ascertain the plan. Coetzee is understandably under pressure and perhaps is reluctant to stick his neck out, but a coherent game plan that both fans and the media can point to helps buy a struggling team some time.

Stakeholders can say, “Well at least I know what he’s trying to do”. Not everyone will agree with the method and it might not necessarily work, but a coach hangs his reputation on his philosophies and when in trouble, firm ideologies help the person in the hot seat stand firm against the tide of chastisement.

It is more difficult in cricket to have a clear game plan. The sport involves hundreds and thousands of individual battles between bat and ball that collectively contribute to the overall game. However, all the great sides in history have had a particular style of play and the Australians need to find theirs.

Their all-conquering predecessors were bombastic and belligerent. They were in your face and let you know that they knew they were the best. At last year’s 50 over World Cup, the Australians smashed New Zealand in the final but made very few friends doing it.

They were aggressive and downright rude compared to the likeable Kiwis, but they won. Australian cricket needs to find its mongrel if it wants to relive the good times.

Of course top teams need to be flexible if Plan A goes awry, but struggling teams who have a clear identity to fall back on are more than likely to find a rhythm that feels comfortable.

Understand your best team and stick with it.

Steve Smith has now captained Australia in 17 Tests and has used 28 players in the process. By contrast, Steve Waugh, the man widely regarded as one of the best skippers of the modern era, used 28 players in his entire 57-Test captaincy career. This is the 12th consecutive Test in which Australia have used a different starting XI from the previous match.

The Boks have been just as erratic. Coetzee has made an average of 3.9 changes to his starting XV in the 11 Tests he has been in charge. That means he changes just over a quarter of his starting team every time the Boks run out to play. Of course injuries play a more telling role in squad rotation within rugby than it does in cricket, but this lack of coherency and consistency, especially in vital combinations at 9 & 10, 12 & 13 and in the loose forwards, is problematic.

When a coach struggles to find a starting combination that he trusts, it sends a message to players that there is a distinct lack of a game plan. Not only that, but selection flippancy adds pressure on the immediacy of a good performance. It tells the player, “One bad game and you’re out”.

In struggling teams, no one should be safe from the chopping block, but trusting that the team you have assembled will eventually click instils a confidence in the players that they are not receiving from their results. Consistency is key for success in elite sport and constantly changing personnel only ever leads to instability.

Australian cricket captain, Steve Smith will need to bring his team together during this difficult rebuilding phase.

Australian cricket captain, Steve Smith will need to bring his team together during this difficult rebuilding phase.

Have a solid core of leaders that you trust

When Springbok captain, Adriaan Strauss announced his retirement from international rugby on September 1st, shortly after losing to Argentina, there were still six games left in the season. It appeared the head rat was fleeing the sinking ship as fast as he could. Any sane coach would have immediately stripped Strauss of the captaincy and handed it to someone who he backed to not only be in the side for seasons to come, but also who would be willing to see this project through to the end.

In what was at best a lack of foresight and at worst an overt display of cowardice, Coetzee did nothing and allowed Strauss to parade as captain while poor result followed poor result.

Having a captain that does not want to be there sends a poor message to the rest of the team. Positive results are not guaranteed in elite sport, but what should be guaranteed is the grit and determination from the man leading the side.

Smith, Australia’s cricket captain, is no Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting or Mark Taylor. He’s probably not even up to standard when compared to Michael Clarke, but he is there on the front lines, fully committed to the cause despite the barrage of insults and jibes hurled at him.

This fortitude, no matter how poorly backed by results it may be, instils confidence in a struggling team. It lets the younger players know that they have a leader in their ranks who is sticking with them, who is taking responsibility for the poor results and who will not abdicate his duties until he is asked to leave.

By keeping the reluctant Strauss as the Bok captain, Coetzee gave the impression that long term commitment was not a variable he placed in high regard. I am in no way saying that Strauss should have been dropped from the team. He is the best hooker available to Coetzee. But had Coetzee showed strength by removing Strauss as captain, he would been able to build a team around a leader who is committed to the future of the side.

Focus on positives and enjoy the process

Both South African rugby and Australian cricket players are little more than entertainers who make a living playing a game. They are not on the front lines of a war, they are not changing economic or political policies and they are not responsible for finding the cure of a deadly disease.

Fans and the media heap pressure on ailing coaches and athletes with an apparent relish that it’s hard not to toy with the idea that scribes and spectators sometimes prefer it if their team is struggling.

Coaches and athletes need to remember why they first pursued a career in sport and simply enjoy the process. It’s not supposed to be easy but it is supposed to be enjoyable.