If it is an extra bit of inspiration the Springboks need to edge out England in their Rugby World Cup final on Saturday 2 November, they should look no further than from within.
The Springboks’ brains trust – in coach Rassie Erasmus, strength and conditioning coach Aled Walters and coaching consultant Felix Jones – has intimate knowledge of northern hemisphere rugby, having coached there. But the spark of this tournament’s fire may come from an unlikely source in assistant coach Mzwandile Stick.
Stick’s bruising, yet rewarding stints with the Springboks could give the South Africans the psychological edge they so desperately desire. It was Stick, after all, who was one of the scapegoats for then coach Allister Coetzee’s tumultuous first year in charge of the national team in 2016. Then 32 years old and wet behind the ears in the coaching world, Stick was thrown to the wolves at international level. He was left as easy prey for teams waiting to pounce on a vulnerable and clueless Springbok team.
But being the fall guy was never going to deter Stick, who is familiar with thriving in adversity, having had a tough and rough upbringing in the Port Elizabeth township of New Brighton.
Rising against the odds
“When it comes to my history as a coach, when it comes to the Springboks, I have never doubted myself,” Stick said. “I have always had a belief in what I am capable of. As a coach, you are always going to go through those tough challenges. Where I’m at currently, I’m in a good space to be trusted in my job and contributing to the team. That is something I can’t take for granted.
“I have to give credit to our head coach, Rassie Erasmus. He has created an environment for not only us as coaches to excel but also with the players. Winning the Rugby Championship after 10 years was great, but the bigger one is what lies ahead of us. We are just going to make sure that we keep grinding every day and work hard to win the World Cup.”
The 35-year-old coach fell in love with the game after the Springboks’ heroics of 1995. He says his passion for the game and his rise from rugby obscurity to leading the national Sevens team to their first world crown in 2009 played a small but significant part in his continued rite of passage into rugby manhood.
Even when his rugby coaching credentials were questioned despite him leading an unfancied Eastern Province Under-19 team to being national champions in 2015, adding to his stints as head coach of the Eastern Province team in the Vodacom Cup and also serving as Southern Kings assistant, Stick didn’t make it about himself but rather his responsibility in proving that black people belong and can contribute to the success of rugby and the Springboks.
“When it comes to being a man, there is a lot of stages of how to be a man. It is not only about going to the bush [for initiation] and then the chapter is closed. Part of getting married is part of being a man and also what we have achieved in being able to represent our country, it is part of the challenge of being a man,” Stick said.
“Manhood comes with responsibility and the same applies with the leadership roles we have currently in sport. We know the power that we have when it comes to our country. There is something I love about Gwijo Squad and what they have brought to rugby. Us as black people don’t only sing when we are sad or protesting. We sing when we are happy as well.
“We sing when we are sad, we sing when we celebrate, we sing when we go and come back from the bush. That is something that is in us. I would love to see our country once again sing, all South Africans rejoicing on what has been achieved by the Springboks.
“As a youngster, I was one of the guys that benefitted from that team 1995 World Cup-winning Springboks and I fell in love with the game from what was created then by the likes of Chester Williams and Joel Stransky. I so wish that the likes of Herschel Jantjies and Handre Pollard will be the next heroes in our country where they can inspire the nation.”
Beyond the politics of rugby, in the centre of which Stick has often found himself in the past three years, there lies an astute student of the game whose role in the recent successes of the Springbok team has been overshadowed by the stereotypes around his skin colour.
As a humble man of few words, Stick’s coaching qualities have come to the fore in the style of play the Springboks have adopted under Erasmus. As the man tasked with assisting the players with their skills and spotting the unseen spaces in a rugby game, Stick’s Sevens skills and ability to get the best out of individuals within a collective has seen the Springboks seamlessly incorporate their physical, 10 man rugby with the slick and fast handling skills synonymous with teams like three-time world champions the All Blacks.
“When it comes to attack and defence in our team, it is all about the pressure you apply on the opposition. Even if we don’t have ball in hand, we are always in a good position with our system where we put the opposition under pressure to make mistakes.
“People always think that scoring tries is all about being fancy and running from inside your half, but they don’t see sometimes the pressure that we apply through defence that forces the opposition to make those mistakes where we capitalise. That is an area where I feel we are finding balance.
“If you look at New Zealand in previous years, they were one of the best teams when using turnover ball to punish opposition, and that is something we have managed to pay attention to.
“To see our outside backs scoring many tries is something that makes me feel positive and that we are heading in the right direction. As the Springboks, we are well known for playing the physical game and there were a couple of years where I felt that we had lost that advantage. We can never lose that as the Springboks and that is something that we are trying to bring back with our forwards, as one can see with the way that our tight five has been playing. Our locks can dominate any team on any day and our front row as well.”
While the Springboks will look to put their best foot forward in the final in Yokohama against England, it will be equally important that they draw their inspiration of overcoming adversity from within.
Having come of age as a coach, Stick’s journey and his return to the team could be that spark of inspiration in the same way captain Siya Kolisi’s fairy tale story in the Springbok No. 6 jersey will surely rekindle memories of that famous 1995 World Cup victory and hopefully lead this team down the path to rugby’s Holy Grail.
The Kolisi factor
“I get goosebumps when I talk about him [Kolisi],” Stick said. “Even though I’m part of the coaching staff and contribute towards making the calls in the team. When I was sitting at home and it was official that Siya will be Springbok captain, I shed a tear. I know what Siya went through to be where he is today. Coming from Zwide, there are a lot of challenges that we are faced with. It is not easy as youngsters to be focused on sport and achieve what you want to achieve.
“There is a lot of stuff that happens around you and you lose a lot of friends that we grew up with because their lives went in a different direction. I know what Siya has been through, like losing his mom at a young age, and the area we grew up in with his home not far from mine in New Brighton. When he came to Cape Town to join Western Province, we all lived in the same place and I was one of the guys who mentored him.
“I’m really proud of who Siya has turned out to be. He is a leader, not only on the field but off it as well. We are seeing the things that he is doing in Zwide to uplift the community. And to also be the father of four kids, which includes two of his siblings and his daughter and son is an incredible thing. It goes back to that point about being a man, it is not just about going to the bush. It is about the steps and stages one goes through in life.
Stick continued, “I’m proud of what Siya has achieved as a leader, especially from the difficult background he comes from. It shows to any youngster sitting out there who thinks it is not possible, that it is possible.
“A guy like Makazole Mapimpi, who comes from a deep rural background, many people don’t understand what it takes for him to be where he is at the moment. I can mention many names, it is not only about black or white. It just shows how I feel about them. I’ve been to the rural areas, I’ve played against the teams there and I know how difficult it is to grow up under those difficult conditions. Once again, it shows life and that it is all about opportunities. Everyone deserves an opportunity.”