Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The return to Super Rugby in 2020 of globally much-decorated Warren Gatland will only further expose a massive gulf in experience between coaches of the ever-assertive New Zealand sides, in particular, and their counterparts in the four South African franchises.
Gatland, 56, is back on board as head coach of the Chiefs next season – very much a case of returning to his heartland, as he was born in Hamilton, played for Waikato from 1986 to 1994 as hooker and has previously held senior mastermind positions both for Waikato and the Chiefs themselves (as technical advisor 2006-07).
His head coaching tenures with both Ireland and, much more lengthily, Wales until very recently at Six Nations level are well documented, while his confirmed appointment as head coach of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa for the 2021 tour means it will be his third for the Lions in that extremely high-profile capacity.
So Gatland, who only fell four points shy of knocking over eventual World Cup champions the Springboks in a tense semi-final just over a fortnight ago in his second-last game at the Welsh helm, will really take into Super Rugby 2020 a CV alone that scarily eclipses all four SA head coaches together for weight of achievement worldwide.
Winner of three prestigious Grand Slams as Welsh coach, he had begun his coaching career in the dual berth – reasonably unusual for rugby, especially these days – of player-coach for Taupiri (the small town in Waikato) in 1989, meaning that he effectively sports some three decades as a strategic guru and has a vast knowledge of top-flight rugby in both hemispheres.
The South African situation in 2020, by stark contrast, is characterised by the unprecedented fact that three of the four franchise coaches will be marking their debuts in that capacity: Sean Everitt of the Sharks, the Stormers’ John Dobson and Lions’ newly-appointed Ivan van Rooyen.
Up until last year, Van Rooyen had not held a position more senior at the Johannesburg franchise than strength and conditioning coach, a title he had held for almost 10 years.
But he does boast two years as head coach of the Golden Lions at Currie Cup level (including taking them to this season’s final against the Cheetahs), and that is one year better than the Sharks’ Everitt, whose jump to Super Rugby level is especially rapid after only one domestic campaign calling the shots in Durban.
Even the Super Rugby predecessors in each case, Robert du Preez (Sharks), Robbie Fleck (Stormers) and Swys de Bruin (Lions) could hardly have been said to have boasted especially durable records in the competition from a pure experience point of view.
All of the subsequent “musical chairs” at that level leaves Pote Human of the Bulls, incredibly, as the most seasoned of the quartet heading into 2020 – and he has only held the Super Rugby reins at Loftus for one campaign, guiding them to a credible quarter-final.
In the gnarly 60-year-old’s favour, though, is that he has at least been involved in professional coaching since 1996, when he first grabbed the job at the Griffons: he has also been at Loftus in many capacities over several years and sports three years in Japan as forwards coach for Ricoh Black Rams (2008-10).
All of Everitt, Dobson – a fuller, five years as a Currie Cup head mastermind with WP – and Van Rooyen can be considered “young” in several respects as they embark on their maiden Super Rugby campaigns, albeit hardly helped by significant exoduses of talent to overseas clubs since completion of Super Rugby 2019.
The hope in the corridors of SA Rugby will be that all of the trio bring some bright, fresh ideas into play as the country seeks, perhaps a little against the odds, to bring the Super Rugby title back to these shores for the first time in a decade since the Bulls’ last of three trophy triumphs.
Even if you take the fairly extreme case of Gatland aside, other New Zealand franchises will largely remain blessed by more proven individuals at their coaching helms.
Although the All Blacks vacancy for 2020 onward is tantalisingly yet to be filled, as things stand the defending champion Crusaders will again be spearheaded by charismatic Scott Robertson, seeking a fourth successive title, the Hurricanes by popular, widely-travelled former Sharks head coach John Plumtree, the Highlanders by Aaron Mauger in his third annual crack, and the Blues by Leon MacDonald in a second year in charge.
Length of CV, of course, is no guarantee of stellar achievement (indeed, they can be fatally tarnished in some professionals by the conspicuous presence of hot air).
But it can be a useful ally, and if so it is already “advantage NZ” in a broad sense for Super Rugby 2020 …
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