Conceding decline, South African rugby begins soul searching

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) " Top South African rugby coaches and officials conceded the performance of their national team was in sharp decline and overall running of the game was flawed, in opening a search for answers on Wednesday.

The two-day conference in Cape Town, hosted by national coach Allister Coetzee, had already been planned but was given greater urgency after a woeful season by Coetzee's Springboks saw them slump to three historic defeats.

SA Rugby acting president Mark Alexander opened the meeting by saying there was an urgent need to "plot a new direction."

The meeting brought together executives and coaches of all of South Africa's major domestic teams, as well as former Springboks coaches and captains. It is the first of its kind in South African rugby in over a decade.

The Springboks, two-time world champions, were stunned by a record 57-15 defeat by New Zealand in Durban this month, South Africa's worst loss at home and worse ever to its greatest rival. That followed a first-ever loss at home to Ireland " which beat South Africa despite having a man sent off " and a first loss for the Springboks in Argentina.

After South Africa's most embarrassing rugby performance in years against the All Blacks in Durban, Coetzee said in a brutally honest assessment that South Africa had fallen well behind top-ranked New Zealand, and also probably now trailed other teams.

"We are thumb-sucking that we are the best rugby nation in the world," Coetzee told some of the most important figures in South African rugby, hinting that administrators had been in denial.

The problems ran deeper than just a poor season, Coetzee said, presenting a collection of statistics that he said showed how South Africa had underperformed since rugby became professional in 1996. The most stark: New Zealand's 14 southern hemisphere titles vs. South Africa's three. Also, the Springboks' win percentage away from home in the southern hemisphere championship, which began in 1996, was just 18 percent.

"Overall, our game has not advanced as we would have hoped," Coetzee said. He referred to South Africa's two World Cup triumphs as "isolated success."

While there's unlikely to be a quick fix, the most pressing issue for South Africa appears to be a lack of collaboration between the national team and the country's six Super Rugby franchises. Coetzee and Alexander both noted that.

The Springboks management is clearly envious of New Zealand's system, where top players are centrally contracted by the national union, and around 180 of the country's best players are controlled by the union, according to Alexander. The entire domestic setup in New Zealand appears to be geared toward ensuring the All Blacks are successful.

As South Africa began its soul searching, the All Blacks, winners of the last two Rugby World Cups, were preparing for a test against Australia this weekend which could see them break the record for the most consecutive wins in top-level international rugby.

"We know the New Zealanders get it right," SA Rugby head Alexander said. "It would be wise to take a leaf out of their book."

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Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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