It’s easy to assume that ambitious, championship-winning teams are led by charismatic and boisterous coaches, the likes of Al Pacino as Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday. Coaches who deliver inspirational and spine-tingling dressing room speeches like the one about “inches”.
But as much as sport is riddled with tales of men in white shirts and black jackets giving emotionally charged speeches to their teams before crucial games, it is not always the path to attaining silverware and sporting immortality.
A case in point is at Loftus Versfeld. There, after parting ways last year with superstar coach John Mitchell, who succumbed to the lure of a lucrative payday from the Rugby Football Union in England and the rewards of coaching an international side, the Bulls opted to appoint a coach who does not subscribe to the bravado, dress sense or flamboyance that comes with many supposedly championship-winning coaches.
The Bulls have entrusted their lofty ambitions of once again becoming Super Rugby champions to 59-year-old Pote Human. They have placed their faith in the quiet wisdom of a journeyman coach from the far-flung rural outskirts of the Eastern Cape, the small town of Despatch.
Human is no Pacino. But the man with the humble demeanour, who was revered during his playing days at Eastern Province and Free State, is slowly bringing the Bulls back to life, and rugby dominance in the southern hemisphere back to Tshwane.
Human was hidden in the background as forwards coach during the Bulls’ first Super Rugby triumph under Heyneke Meyer. Mitchell resurrected his coaching career in the same role last year, and Human feels the time is right for him to take over the reins even though he never envisaged himself in the top coaching position.
“No, never, never. When I arrived at the Bulls in 2005, when Heyneke called me to come and coach the forwards, I had this dream, but as time went on I thought it would never come my way. Suddenly, at this age, I got it. Maybe it is the right time with all the experience I picked up from schools, club rugby and Currie Cup, and working with Heyneke and John Mitchell. I think this is the right time for me,” said Human, who played eighthman in his day.
Human racked up an incredible 116 caps for Eastern Province before switching allegiance to Bloemfontein, where he played 84 matches for Free State. During that time he was known as a fearless player who instilled fear and doubt in his opponents. The roles have been reversed now that he is the head coach. Human admitted that his nerves have never been as heightened as they are now.
The New Zealand test
Much of this has to do with the growing air of expectation in the city and around the country after the Bulls had a good start in the competition before coming horribly unstuck against the Chiefs at Loftus.
Human knew victories against the Stormers, Lions and Sharks would not be a true barometer of where they stood on the title-contenders chart. They had to play against the New Zealand teams.
The Bulls dropped from the top of the South African conference to fourth after Chiefs handed them a 56-20 drubbing. But it was a rugby lesson Human said they needed, to show them how far they really are from the other title contenders.
“The nerves are now there because everyone is talking about the New Zealand teams that are playing too much against each other. We are also playing double rounds against each other, but I was nervous about Saturday [23 March] because I knew what we could do. But Chiefs are a good side and were going to be a big test for us. We now know where we stand,” said Human.
But the Bulls coach is not deterred by his team’s hammering at the hands of Chiefs. From his many years of traversing the rugby world as a coach, he appreciates that Super Rugby champions aren’t defined by a single game or the way they play against domestic rivals.
A few good results
The competition is far from over and with the unpredictable nature of this being a World Cup year, Human trusts that the longer they remain in the fight, the more fortunate they can become and the longer he can stay in the job.
While the Bulls’ current reality may feel grim, it won’t take them long to realise that a few good results will not only turn their fortunes around but put them in the pound seats again ahead of their tour to Australasia. They are only five points adrift of South African conference leaders the Lions and six points behind combined log leaders and defending champions the Crusaders.
“Handre Pollard summed it up well after the game against the Sharks, when he said that from now on it is going to become more difficult because people will jump on the bandwagon and say how good we are, we are the best franchise in South Africa again and have a shot at the title. For us, it is important to stay humble, keep our feet on the ground and work hard for every game, because it is really going to get tough.
“There are still a lot of games to come before the play-offs. On myself, there is always pressure. I want to be in this position for two or three years. At this stage, I only have a one-year contract, so for me it is about winning and that is the name of the game. If we can do well in the next month, maybe the Bulls will look after me.”
The Human touch
Over and above the meticulous manner in which he prepares his team, it is the love and care Human shows his players – rather than emotional speeches – that has brought out the best in them. It has become one of his greatest coaching strengths.
He did the same thing for the Cheetahs before they ruled the domestic scene in the mid-2000s, as head coach of the Blue Bulls 2006 Currie Cup joint champions outfit, with the Tuks Varsity Cup-winning team in 2017 and as head coach of the Blue Bulls team that lost in extra time in last year’s Currie Cup semifinal against Western Province.
It goes without saying that all coaches are judged on the performance of their teams, and Human will want to be judged no differently. But his reward won’t come in silverware and a contract extension, it’ll be in the growth his players experience on and off the field.
It was Human who spotted and nurtured the likes of Springbok loose forward Marco van Staden and who played a crucial role in the transformation of flank Thembelani Bholi, who has come from being a misunderstood talent to a player who came within a barnstorming game of becoming a Springbok.
“For me, it’s about the player. I’m always worried about the player, his welfare, wellbeing and his future. Bholi was one of those guys who really impressed me and that’s the satisfaction I get out of coaching. The same as a guy like Marco van Staden, who I brought in from Varsity Cup and he became a Springbok. Players that left Tuks and went to other unions and are making it, that is my satisfaction that I get out of the game.”
Even incumbent Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has benefited from Human’s bashful nature.
“I’ve got huge respect for Rassie. We grew up as neighbours, then I coached him at the Cheetahs and then he was the Currie Cup coach there when I was the Currie Cup coach here [at the Bulls] and we drew the final in 2006. He is now the Springbok coach and I am very proud of him, and I have a huge respect for him as a rugby mind. He is unbelievable and I really think he is going to do well at the World Cup,” said Human.
Heart in the Eastern Cape
There is no doubt that Human’s loyalty is to the Bulls, but his heart still belongs to the Eastern Cape. He has watched with sadness the nightmare that rugby has become in his home province as a result of maladministration at Eastern Province and Border rugby.
“I will always be an Eastern Province guy. I played for Despatch and Eastern Province. It hurts to see how things have gone. I hope the new investor there will bring something special, because there’s so much talent there. It is unfortunate that only so many guys can play in bigger unions.
“I think Eastern Province can be a force to be reckoned with in South African rugby and world rugby, for that matter,” said Human of his hope for a better future since a consortium of Eastern Cape businesspeople, GRC, bought almost three-quarters of the Southern Kings franchise in February.
It is his big heart and not conforming to the perceptions of what a championship-winning coach should look and sound like that has unshackled Human from the confines and blind spots of many of his predecessors and from most South African Super Rugby coaches, past and present.
In the game against the Sharks at Loftus, Human fearlessly took Bulls rugby into the future by selecting a starting line-up that comprised six black players and a further five on the bench.
“For those 11 guys, it was on merit. It was not that I had to pick 11 or 10 guys of colour. For me, it’s about the player. I love all of them, it doesn’t matter what is their religion, culture or skin colour … If he is good enough, he will play for the Bulls,” said Human.
No choice but to win
It is all too easy to make assumptions about coaches and their abilities at face value. At the end of Any Given Sunday, not even Pacino’s words could turn his team into a championship-winning outfit.
Sometimes it is the ordinary, quiet and friendly older guy who has seen and done it all that will inspire a long-suffering, middle-of-the-road team into a formidable outfit that will challenge for trophies.
Human is that guy, and he might just love his team enough to give them no choice but to win the Super Rugby tournament.
“I really believe [that we can win the Super Rugby competition]. I was privileged to be here in 2007 with Heyneke when we won Super Rugby. I have the same feeling. The players feel and play for each other.
“I’m enjoying it and all the guys are enjoying their rugby now. They are close and play for each other, and that’s what my main aim was, to get these guys together as a team. We are getting there slowly but surely and we will get Loftus full again.”