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Long road to a brief burst of glory

Submitted by on Saturday, 9 May 2009No Comment
Long road to a brief burst of glory

Dick Muir only played five Tests after a long career in provincial rugby — but they were during the Boks’ 17-match winning streak.

I see you were at Queens College; was that at the same time as Darryl Cullinan?

Yes – he was an unbelievable sportsman. He was the under fifteen fly-half, while I was first team fly half. At that age he kicked the ball further than anyone else in the school. Also at that time he was already playing provincial cricket.

What position did you prefer?

Fly-half. I played it at school and when I was at Cedara College. But when I played Natal trials I cracked the nod at centre, which I certainly wasn’t going to turn down.

In one of the Natal feeder games you played with SARU President, Oregon Hoskins. What was he like as a player?

Better be careful what I say as he is my boss… he actually was a good player. A, ‘never say die’ type of player; he was a lanky, almost thin lock forward and I remember him as a good team man. I also think he has done well as president. He came into the job as an almost unknown, compared to some of the previous incumbents and he has done well.

For years you played rugby for Natal and relative to some of the youngsters in the game, were getting on in years – did you think you would ever play for the Springboks?

No. It felt like it was never going to happen, but then I did the right thing by going to The Stormers, where I finally managed to crack the nod for the Boks. They seemed to value me more as a player.

You were in the first Springbok team Nick Mallet coached and you scored a try on your debut.

It was wonderful to finally get a test cap. The year before I had been on the tour to Argentina and Wales, but I was just one of the dirt trackers. Funny but I think it was only because there were about eight centres injured, that I managed to get on as a dirt tracker (laughs). So when I was finally selected as first choice, having waited so long, it was really something special. Also Nick was one of those coaches who allowed us to play what we saw and moulded the team into a really good unit. That first match I played was the second of that incredible17 match winning streak. So the Boks won all the games I played in.

You also scored a try in your second match.

I think I did – but I wasn’t a big try scorer. I was more for setting them up.

You played in five test matches, why didn’t you play more?

I got injured during the Super 12, as it then was. I hurt my neck really badly and wasn’t able to play after that. That injury ended my career.

You played in what must be one of the great sporting upsets of all time, when Natal beat The Bulls in a curry cup final at Loftus. Tell me about that.

Yes – what a day that was. As we ran onto the field Pete Nel injured himself, I think he tripped over a TV cable and so he didn’t play. We were complete underdogs as that same team had thrashed us something like 63 – 6, the week before. But we were a side that was hungry for success. We had the odds stacked against us; so we had nothing to lose; and also Ian McIntosh was an astute, wily coach and he got the tactics right that game. Other things helped; Naas missed a few penalties, which wasn’t like him. Also there was a late tackle after I think Tony Watson scored a try, so we were awarded a penalty on the half way line, which Joel slotted. Converted tries were worth 6 points then, so we effectively scored a 9 point try.

After your playing days were over, you coached Pirates to win the Club Championships. How did that come about?

I had just moved up to Johannesburg and Ray Mordt got me involved with Pirates. At first I was just helping out, but then the head coached got pulled up to the Lions and I took over the coaching. The whole Pirates organisation was amazingly slick and it had a nice balance between social and being competitive. I suppose that’s where my coaching career really started. And of course it was fantastic to win the Club champs.

How big a change was it going from playing to coaching?

It wasn’t a big change, because when I was playing, I was always the backline organiser – like a player coach, I was always involved tactically in a decision making role. So I have always enjoyed that side of it.

You applied to be the Springbok coach. How did you feel about only getting to be assistant coach?

Well I have a lot of respect for Pieter De Villiers, because he coached me when he was assistant coach to Andre Markgraaf. So when he asked me to assist him that excited me. He wasn’t an unknown quantity; I actually had dealt with him before. Also it was quite exciting to be able to work with the Bok team that won the World Cup, but in my mind had actually not played that well. There was much more to come from that group of players. Although since then we haven’t done as well as we anticipated. I mean we would have liked to have won the Tri-nations; but we have had some success and I am enjoying the coaching team we have got there.

Rugby seems to have become so much more defensive than it was. Players don’t commit to rucks and mauls; they just spread out to defend. What’s your view on that?

I think there are still a lot of opportunities for good backline attack. I think we proved it at the end of last year against England. But I am obsessed with trying to attack space, so I work all my strategies around trying to manipulate open space and numbers. Unfortunately some of the new laws, like having to be 5 meters back from the scrums, militate against attack from the set pieces. So it’s become more momentum orientated than strike orientated, but with some of the athletes we have in this country, we have to look at attack.

Turning to the Lions’ Tour – will the fact that we have been playing different laws to the Lions be a problem?

It certainly makes it more challenging. But I also think there are some benefits to us. Because of the laws we’ve got used to playing a high tempo game. Looking at the team the Lions have selected, they want to play a more forward dominated game. Although having said that, they have also selected some seriously fast backs to counter what we want to do. They have obviously done their homework – but we have done ours so I think it is going to be a great series.

How do you feel about the way games are continually being reduced to aerial ping pong?

I must say the kicking part to a large extent has disappointed me. But because of the new laws, kicking has become a larger part of the attack strategy. It is just that so many teams kick particularly badly.

Before the Tour, the Springboks are only having one warm up game (against Namibia), while the Lions will effectively be having six warm up games before the first test. Why is that?

Of course we do need to have some sort of match practise. But the guys are coming off a gruelling Super 14 series, so they won’t need too much. In fact only playing one match may be an advantage and give us more time to prepare.

Who will be doing goal kicking duty?

Ruan Pienaar. He hasn’t been kicking for The Sharks as he had an injury. But he is back now and we know what a reliable kicker he is.

You attended the International Rugby Academy in New Zealand. What prompted that?

It was born out of that Super 14 final, where the Sharks lost to the Bulls. The match was basically stolen from under our noses. After that I wanted new challenges and to re-energise myself. I thought I was a good coach, but I was amazed how much I learnt on that course. In fact that’s when I decided it would be a good idea to have something like that Academy here.

And you have now opened the Investec International Rugby Academy in South Africa. How is it different to other rugby schools?

Well the International Rugby Academy in New Zealand has been running for a long time and we now have direct access to their experience and to some of the best coaches in the world. It is position specific, in that we have top ex-internationals who assist players in the positions those internationals played. It is interesting when you look at the profile of the students who attended IRANZ – nearly fifty percent of the intake was from South Africa. So there is obviously a huge appetite for something like this.

Who is your Academy’s target market?

It covers the whole range – from schoolboys, professionals and right up to full-time coaches.

Given that it originally comes from New Zealand, have we now imported the knowledge we need to regularly beat the All Blacks?

(Laughs) It would be nice wouldn’t it? I don’t think it is as easy as that. But one thing is for sure we are certainly going to radically up the standard of rugby where ever we are involved.

Former Springbok John Allan says you are probably one of the most positive people he has ever met. He says all potential suicides should talk to you, and they would change their plans. Have you always been like that?

I think I’ve been lucky most of my career and have generally been surrounded by good people; and I have always enjoyed life. Also I am quite gregarious and generally like people. Though not sure how many potential suicides I have saved (laughs).

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