New books | Winging It: On Tour with the Boks

Press conferences are largely dreary affairs. Often, neither the interviewed nor the interviewers want to be there. But when things drift off script, it can be entertaining.

This is an excerpt from Liam Del Carme’s Winging It: On Tour with the Boks (Jacana, 2019).

Coaches’ quirks

For some a scourge, for others a primary source, the press conference has long established itself as the world’s porthole to professional sport.

It is the platform from which in-demand sports try to transmit their sterilised, even manicured message into the public domain. I often think of the Crocodile Harris hit Give Me the Good News when I walk into a press conference because for those facing the microphones it is all about their message and not about the most burning issue. It is as soulless as an empty Southern Comfort bottle.

Of course, for sports writers it is all about “what’s news”. It means these gatherings of the performers and the press (at least for the senior writers) have become a delicate dance between what the former knows and how it can potentially be coaxed from them.

Imperceptible to many, generally there is a beat and a rhythm to every press conference. It is, however, easily disturbed. At times, when an awkward question needs to be asked, it is usually reserved for the tail end of the gathering. All too often, however, some young buck barely out of cadet school jumps in with a question that puts the coach on the back foot and before we know it the coach is out the door. A typical example would be: “You only have three black players in your starting line-up …” or “Your team has received five yellow cards in as many matches …”

Very often coaches themselves are coached before they walk through the door. As much as we want to know why a player was dropped, coaches are much more inclined to extol the virtues of the new guy coming in. Some coaches, however, are quite happy to tango, and at times tangle, with writers. Some deliver explanations with great glee to an audience they believe is in desperate need of schooling.

Every coach has his quips and quirks, and indeed his go-to words or phrases.

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Former All Blacks guru Graham Henry, a former headmaster, would address the media as if he had just called us to assembly. He often finished an answer by turning it into a question.

“Richie McCaw is a captain in the finest tradition of All Blacks rugby, isn’t he?” Henry might say.

If a question was clumsily framed Henry would turn on his interrogator with sarcasm. He had a sense of haughtiness about him but it was actually quite endearing. Steve Hansen, the man who succeeded him, is the same but the former policeman just ends up sounding sardonic.

Jake White, another former schoolteacher, was fond of starting a sentence with “Again, like I said …” when he knew he was set to repeat what he had just said three minutes earlier, or at a press conference three months previously. He said that once at a press conference in Ireland when a South African journo’s phone rang. The lyrics to the start of the offending ring tone went: “Tennisballe, krieketballe, sokkerballe as jy wil. [Tennis balls, cricket balls, soccer balls if you have to].” This was the opening refrain of a hideous but wildly popular Afrikaans song at the time titled Leeuloop.

White held the traditions of the game and the Springboks dear, and would often talk about them. He obsessed, in a good way, about team selection. “In the past players were dropped and then you start again. I’m not going to do that. I’ve got to teach the players that I’ve got to get it right,” he rather presciently told us in Perth in 2004. He won the RWC three years later.

Another former Bok coach, Rudolf Straeuli, when he believed he was required to respond to something that to him is clear and obvious, would start by saying: “Basically …”

When he was Bok coach, Straeuli gave you the impression that he got some of his media training from the Stasi, but as turnarounds go, his has been remarkable. In fact, he just about rehabilitated, if not reinvented, himself first as commercial manager at the Sharks before joining the Lions where he started as chief executive officer.

Former Springbok assistant coach Gert Smal, like Straeuli, often dead batted questions. With the taciturn Smal, though, you got the feeling his motives were not to suppress, but that sitting in front of a bank of cameras with bright lights and recorders simply did not appeal to him.

It was always advisable to catch Big Gert away from the top table where a question about the ruck, lineout, maul or scrum would be met far more favourably. It was only then that he would develop what looked suspiciously like a glint in his eye. I once asked him about the timing of the “hit” in the scrum engage and he appeared to spring to life.

Smal may have come across as placid and almost slothish in his demeanour, but don’t be fooled. A colleague once referred to him and Allister Coetzee as White’s “yes men” when they were Springbok assistant coaches. Coetzee was livid. Smal apparently wore the gaze of a man with homicidal intent when he finally got to confront the writer in question.

Heyneke Meyer almost permanently wore a steely gaze, but it was his mispronunciations that softened us up. For instance, for some reason no one ever corrected him when he spoke of South America’s second-largest country “Argentinia”.

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Peter de Villiers had a go-to phrase when asked how he was doing. “Ag, you know, even the bad times are good,” he’d say in clear reference to the 1967 Tremeloes hit. I often thought that he should have spent more time listening to that other Tremeloes ditty Silence is Golden.

These quips and quirks served to liven up press conferences where one cliche tends to seamlessly follow the other. It of course doesn’t help when Springbok media managers are just downright obstructionist. All too often writers are left with the suspicion that they see press conferences as a massive inconvenience. They know their existence is complicated when press conferences drift off script, and often players who are only likely to play a peripheral role in the next match or, worse, have been left holding tackle bags on tour, are presented for interviews.

Journalists who write for weekend papers despair because they are more likely to be affected by Springbok media managers’ whims. Requests for interviews intended for weekend publication are generally made early in the week but often they don’t materialise as envisioned. Interviews are either not arranged because the media manager couldn’t bother, the subject or coach refuses, or the player is brought out as part of the team announcement, which means all the other hungry hounds get to shove their grubby recorders in front of him too.

To be fair, media managers simply don’t have the clout they ought to have. If a player who has played more than 50 Tests isn’t in the mood to do an interview, he can easily tell the team’s media man to get lost. Often, though, writers are left with the sense that it’s the inaction on the media manager’s part, rather than the players refusing to be interviewed, that results in no-shows.

And it isn’t just the South African media that suffer. Early in the week ahead of a Tri-Nations Test in Wellington in 2010, the local paper, the Dominion Post, requested an interview with Victor Matfield. The lock was closing in on 100 Tests later in the competition and the Kiwis have a deep appreciation for milestones even if it is someone they believe are one of the All Blacks’ greatest adversaries. The paper simply wanted to put the elongated lock’s name up in lights in their weekend edition.

Alas, Springbok media liaison Anthony Mackaiser didn’t follow through with the request and the paper didn’t take kindly in their weekly gossip column. “We wish the Bok media manager was on the same flight home as Bakkies Botha [who was injured] because he has been as useful as a chocolate teapot. He should change his name to media prevention officer.”

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