Conducted by Sport24 chief writer, Rob Houwing, Cape Town – The first part of a frank, in-depth interview with WP Rugby managing director Rob Wagner, after their 2008 Currie Cup failure.
This post is taken directly from www.sport24.com
Sport24: Just over two years ago, a supposed Western Province revival was on the cards in the Currie Cup, with a return to a “running rugby” philosophy and players like Gio Aplon and even Zhahier Ryland at the forefront of it. Not in the script, surely, was then missing the semi-final cut in both 2007 and 2008. How do you explain it?
Wagner: It’s very, very simple, Rob. We do not have a proud history of coaching continuity. We’ve had a new coach every 18 months. You go and try to build up continuity every 18 months! At the end of 2007 it was the director of rugby (Nick Mallett) who left; Kobus van der Merwe had left as head coach. Wholesale, complete changes, if you throw in that Gary Gold went to join the Springboks, too. We were very fortunate to acquire the services of Rassie Erasmus as the senior professional coach, also coaching the Stormers, and Allister Coetzee taking the Currie Cup team. Both Rassie and Allister were completely new to the Western Cape, new to the structures, players, supporters and media. It’s not an easy province to coach in; the dynamics here are far, far different to anywhere else. Starting from scratch, the huge disappointment of the season is obviously not making the Currie Cup semis. But let’s very quickly look back at the Super 14: a huge turnaround in the Stormers’ fortunes, unbeaten in their last seven matches and re-instilling the hype, the atmosphere at Newlands. You cannot avoid looking, also, at the unexpected number of internationals we offered up – 12 Springboks and a Fijian.
Sport24: People have questioned your contracting policy …
Wagner: I’ve heard it said we didn’t contract correctly for the Currie Cup – but you simply don’t expect to have that number of Test absentees all at once, and surely it’s great kudos that it does happen! Throw in key injuries along the way, and Allister suddenly had some 17 to 22 players out of his reach. It’s not an excuse, but I’m also giving you facts. You could see when the Bulls played the Falcons and rested nine players at Loftus — and they were still competing for possible top spot and a home final then, remember — they only just beat them 22-20. We lost a critical game away to the Falcons with an even greater number of first-choice players missing. But the silver lining about those first nine matches in the Currie Cup is that we had some young guys cutting their teeth in the competition and really putting their hands up for the future. I’ll just name one random area of the park, the front row: Wicus Blaauw 22, Deon Fourie 21, JC Kritzinger 20. They held up – more than held up – exceptionally well, and are on long-term contracts with us. It’s a very big positive and these guys will play Super 14 one day. But now let’s look at the “Jean de Villiers Springbok group”, if I can call them that: they have not lost in 12 matches. When they come together, they win. They haven’t lost at Newlands since February.
Sport24: Has the entire squad united behind Jean as captain? I ask because a short year or so ago you had a different, very strong-willed character as leader in Luke Watson …
Wagner: First let me say Jean has been outstanding as captain, both as player and leader. There’s an amazing spirit in this team – and I’m not just saying that to wax lyrical. You cannot believe how the guys are looking forward to next year’s Super 14. The absolute dejection in the dressing room after the failure to get that 19-point margin against the Lions told a story of its own. If you include the Boland match where we didn’t get a bonus point, I have never before in my rugby life seen two successive weeks of such distraught winners – us — and ecstatic losers! But the thread of Rassie’s coaching philosophy has spread right through our ranks to U19 level now. And the Institute goes from strength to strength with a massive number of applications and IRB recognition. So all the structures are in place. Look at the incredible crowds this year: Super 14 average 44 000, Currie Cup 20 000, Tests against Italy and New Zealand average of 43 000. Put all that in pot and you see just where we’ve got after Rassie’s Year One! It hurts you in your gut when you don’t make the Currie Cup semi-finals, but otherwise it’s only positivity out there. And we’re retained all our players except for Ross Skeate, unfortunately. You read in the papers “time for a shake-up” and so on. No, it’s actually time for absolute calmness, and of course we need to see a further step-up in Year Two. And I know we can.
Sport24: At the same time, if WP rugby were judged as, say, the rugby equivalent of Arsenal – a big outfit – and you hadn’t won any silverware since 2001, which you haven’t, the football fans would have been probably less tolerant and even in revolt. Sack the board, sack the manager, and so on. Do you feel any heat personally from irate supporters in the shopping centre?
Wagner: Of course there’s heat, and rightfully so. But if you’re talking Arsenal, how long have they had Arsene Wenger? (Some 12 years – Sport24.) We’ve been giving ourselves these 18-month coaching tenures. That is not a recipe for building success. I come back to all the points I’ve just made: keep the structures and personnel together. Under Rassie and company we’ve turned things around already; it gives you much hope for Year Two. There’s no lack of passion and there hasn’t been mismanagement at Newlands; continuity’s been the big failing. Arsene Wenger’s built, and again rebuilt, Arsenal as a force – he has a very young team once again. And he’s been clever because he also hasn’t destroyed the Gunners’ bank balance in the process. Yes, they haven’t got the hardness yet because they are youthful. But that will come again to them. In rugby, I’m thinking Heyneke Meyer … he certainly didn’t turn things around at the Bulls in one season. But they persevered, and the rest is history.
Sport24: A two-pronged question: have you been guilty of regarding the Currie Cup as an afterthought, and do you think that is that the right way to go anyway?
Wagner: It’s a difficult one, because Super 14, given its quality, is far more difficult to win and far more prestigious as a result. It’s an international competition and the standard is incredible. That’s the one that really makes you stand up as a global brand. And our 2008 crowds speak for themselves: average 44 000. The Currie Cup is not “not important”. It’s your big local prize. I come back to an earlier point: we steadfastly maintain we did not contract wrongly for 2008. We just did not expect to offer so many Springboks – and then Sireli (Naqelevuki), through his Super 14 performances, earned his first 15-man cap. We’d found him as a strictly Sevens player! It’s also a feather in your cap as a union, surely, if you can produce so many Boks. Do you know what’s also educative? Ask yourself how many times Canterbury, so strong in Super 14, have won the NPC (now Air New Zealand Cup) in New Zealand over the last 10 years. Not often. (They have won it twice since 1998 – Sport 24.)
Sport24: Does it worry you that even some Capetonians appear to have switched allegiance to the Sharks or Bulls? You see plenty of those flags at Newlands these days …
Wagner: This is a subjective view, I admit, but I don’t think it’s as much to do with a switching of loyalty as it is a migratory thing – the volume of former Durban or Gauteng people who’ve moved to the Cape in recent times. Our own season ticket base is still very, very high – and that season-ticket holder is a traditional Province/Stormers guy. Our corporate suites … they’re sold; we’ve a waiting list for next year. Besides, when there are rival fans around it just adds to the atmosphere in our stadium. Also, because of our unfortunate political past, you get people at Newlands who will still support overseas Super 14 or Test teams – that’s just a reality, and again it doesn’t harm the vibe. We have great diversity and energy in the Western Cape. We believe diversity is our strength and key differentiator. It’s a dynamic province in which to administer.
*In part two tomorrow, Rob Wagner discusses Newlands’s drawbacks in multi-purpose usage terms, player recruitment plans, why he feels veterans like AJ Venter do bring rich value to the franchise, and the two Cape Town matches featuring the British and Irish Lions next year. Don’t miss it!Tweet