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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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Mallett had a compelling case
Stephen Nell
April 5, 2012
Nick Mallett hands out the orders in training, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, July 5, 2000
Nick Mallett endured a mixed time as South Africa coach © Getty Images
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It was surprising to hear that Stuart Lancaster had pipped Nick Mallett to the England coaching job.

The talk here in Cape Town was always that Mallett was a shoo-in for the job, but Lancaster's performance in the Six Nations could not be overlooked. He brought a sense of achievement to a proud rugby nation that was let down badly by its players at last year's Rugby World Cup.

I had the privilege of working as a rugby writer during Mallett's coaching era with South Africa. He inherited a Springbok team that was a shambles in 1997 and immediately took them on a successful end-of-season tour.

The upward curve continued in 1998, when South Africa triumphed in the Tri-Nations by beating New Zealand and Australia home and away. Mallett remained consistent in his selections and eventually the Springboks equalled the world record of 17 consecutive Test wins before losing to Clive Woodward's England at Twickenham.

It also became clear during that period that we were working with an exceptional person - a great coach and a sincere man who believed in running an honest and transparent set-up. Lancaster must have had a pretty exceptional interview for the RFU not to go for Mallett. In fact, I would venture to say that Mallett can achieve greater success than he did with the Springboks if put in charge of an established tier-one country such as England. Every federation has its politics, but in South Africa there are tricky racial hurdles to negotiate.

It's in that context that Mallett also displayed weaknesses while coaching South Africa, though the case for his defence is that he was the first Springbok coach to be subjected to political interference - to the point of the colour of a player's skin being an issue in selection. That bomb exploded before the opening of the Millennium Stadium in 1999 and the chaos resulted in South Africa's first and only defeat to Wales. That was the last all-white Springbok side to play.

Mallett suddenly had a racial problem to go with a growing list of injuries. Pieter Rossouw and Stefan Terblanche were clearly his first-choice wings, but the heat was on to discard one of them. He first opted for Breyton Paulse while rotating Rossouw and Terblanche, but he then decided on the more physical Deon Kayser over Paulse, with Rossouw his preferred man on the left.

It was a very difficult situation to contend with and one can only imagine how a coach must feel about selecting teams against his will, even if history will prove that Paulse's achievements were probably on a par with those of Rossouw and significantly eclipsed those of Terblanche.

Mallett's record during that tumultuous period became distinctly unflattering. There was the first ever loss to Wales and two record defeats - at the time - on successive weekends against New Zealand (28-0 in Dunedin) and Australia (32-6 in Brisbane).

The charm was replaced by a snarl and Mallett also disposed of a great captain in  Gary Teichmann, with the view that Bob Skinstad was South Africa's best No.8. Skinstad had not sufficiently recovered from a knee injury to play at the time and it was one public relations disaster in a year of many.

The mood in South African rugby wasn't good when South Africa jetted off to the World Cup in 1999, although a great victory over England and third-place finish were notable achievements.

Mallett had also been handed a new contract and there was a fresh chapter ahead in 2000. Three defeats in four Tri-Nations games following on from a shared series with England closed the book. He had attempted to introduce a more fluid "Australian" approach, but it proved a flop.

Apart from his successes, the history books will also reflect some failures. We can summarise them as follows:

  • Not maintaining a level head when the dynamics in South African society affected the Springboks
  • A first Springbok defeat in history to Wales
  • Record defeats to New Zealand and Australia
  • The axing of Gary Teichmann
  • Tactical mistakes in 2000

However, Mallett had been affected by unique issues at the time and back then South African rugby was still in the business of airing its dirty laundry in public.

Mallett remained hugely respected and he has maintained his reputation as one of the world's finest coaches to a point that he would have been able to count on significant support if he wanted to coach the Springboks again. There was one more setback in his career - his appointment as director of rugby at Western Province prior to taking up the coaching job in Italy.

Mallett does not suffer fools gladly, but his lack of political nous in a complicated cosmopolitan environment soon saw him at odds with union officials. He is credited with establishing a very successful rugby academy, but that had earlier been the brainchild of Gert Smal.

Notwithstanding any political issues, Western Province were still keen for Mallett to take the reins from Kobus van der Merwe as Stormers coach. However, Mallett said at the time that he did not want to coach in the politically-loaded South African context. It can easily be argued that the majority of Mallett's setbacks were the result of political interference and one must have sympathy with him for what he was exposed to during the course of 1999.

He got a few rugby calls wrong during his tenure, but that is par for the course for any coach. Perhaps his big problem in South Africa was that he simply proved too much of a straightforward rugby man and too little of a politician. He was always passionate about coaching and despised the politics that came with the job.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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