JOHANNESBURG — South African rugby fans prefer to remember Sean Fitzpatrick as the captain of the New Zealand side beaten in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. It’s easier to swallow than remembering him as the player who captained the All Blacks to victory in the Springboks’ first Test match after isolation (27-24 at Ellis Park). It’s certainly easier to swallow than remembering Sean Fitzpatrick as the All Black captain in charge when the 1996 All Blacks finally won a Test series in South Africa (3-1, with the Springboks winning the 4th Test, one of only two Test defeats Fitzpatrick had against the Boks). He became a player the South Africans loved to hate, despite the fact that Fitzpatrick only ever had enormous praise for the skill of SA players and the passion of the fans. He’s always spoken fondly of his time playing in South Africa – winning (mostly) and losing (seldom). He is the 9th most capped All Black player with 92 Tests, which was once the record before Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Dan Carter, Kieran Reid and others came along. He remains a respected member of the international sporting community and is the Chairman of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. He spoke exclusively to Sport24 about Saturday’s Super Rugby final between the Lions and the Crusaders at Ellis Park, as well as the row over referee Jaco Peyper’s appointment. David O’Sullivan
Sport24: Do you concur the two best teams have reached the Super Rugby final?
Sean Fitzpatrick: Yes. In the first semi-final, I thought the Crusaders played very well and showed that they are a complete team. They are strong at the set-pieces, effective at the breakdown and have developed an attacking game, which they had lacked for the last few years. However, it was by and large their defence that won them the semi-final against the Chiefs. I felt their defensive effort was quite phenomenal. While I was impressed with the way in which the Crusaders reached the final, I thought the Lions produced the performance of the two semi-finals in terms of the manner in which they stuck at what they were doing. The Lions turned the game around after half time, and I honestly didn’t see that coming. My fellow Sky Sports analyst, Thinus Delport, was pretty happy after the Lions’ 44-29 victory and he has guaranteed himself another day’s work! Like me, he was impressed with the way the Lions changed their strategy at half time in terms of how they were looking after their possession at the breakdown, and their kicking game was much improved in the second stanza. The Lions are a confidence-based team, and flyhalf Elton Jantjies played very well when he enjoyed front-foot ball. The Lions have turned Ellis Park into a fortress and they are undefeated there this season, which makes for a great final on Saturday in front of a capacity crowd.
Do the All Blacks have a point to prove during the Rugby Championship?
The All Blacks don’t have a point to prove at all despite having drawn the series with the British and Irish Lions. I don’t know where some people are going with that. They are triple world champions. The great thing about this current All Black team, which is one of the best we have seen in a number of years, is that they are very keen to not take their position for granted and they have a burning desire to get better. Sure, there are Irishmen that have been involved in beating the All Blacks on two occasions and not many players around the world can say they have beaten the All Blacks twice in close succession. However, it’s all very well doing it once or twice. The reality is that every team that challenges the All Blacks plays the game of their lives and, 99% of the time, New Zealand still win. It’s a great honour and responsibility to be an All Black and it’s up to you as a player to do everything you can do to make sure you are as prepared as you can be. The All Blacks remember their losses more than their wins. They also know that the day you think you are better than what you are, is the day that somebody else will take your place. The All Blacks are never comfortable. Steve Hansen has been a shining light in terms of knowing what is needed in order to be successful. He is aware of the fact that the way they were doing it yesterday, is not going to be good enough tomorrow. Hansen is a great example of a coach that does not take his position for granted. When Hansen decides to call time on coaching the men in black, there are a number of candidates to succeed him as All Blacks coach. The NZRU are set to want continuity, so the appointment of the next All Blacks coach may well be from within their current coaching structures.
What’s led to Kiwi Super Rugby dominance and how does SA catch up?
The reason New Zealand teams have been so dominant in Super Rugby (14 titles won since 1996) is because we possess a plethora of top players. They very well coached, the players are dedicated and Super Rugby is the breeding ground of the All Blacks. Having all the New Zealand franchises under one umbrella also helps. It’s true that New Zealand teams have totally dominated Super Rugby since its inception, but what’s nice about the competition for the neutral is that there is a South African team in the final this year, when it could quite easily have been an all-Kiwi clash. Those who live in South Africa would know better than I would to be honest but, from the outside looking in, I think that there have been a number of issues (which have hampered South African rugby). In terms of a South African team not winning a Super Rugby title since the Bulls in 2010, players leaving to go overseas has had an impact. It’s always a concern if you are losing key players, but it think the NZRU has been very mature about how they have handled it. Malakai Fekitoa, for example, is 25 and has obviously gone as far as he keen in terms of plying his trade in New Zealand and needs to develop his game playing in Europe. That’s great, and post-2019 he may decide to come back to New Zealand. Moreover, maybe not developing the talent at a grassroots level, which the All Blacks seem to do very well, and a lack of coaching development has hurt South African rugby. However, by all accounts it’s looking pretty bright for the Boks (after their 3-0 series victory over France in June) and I’m looking forward to a competitive Rugby Championship later this month.
You played against the Springboks on 12 occasions. What stands out?
The Springboks are very similar to us all the All Blacks. They like winning, are very tough men and are good people off the field. I would like to think that the Springboks will once again be a powerhouse in world rugby, but I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. However, if you can do it in Sevens, I don’t know why you can’t do it in 15s. When Springbok and Wallaby rugby is strong it benefits world rugby, and that’s the key. The All Blacks being so dominant is not good for world rugby and, as the British and Irish Lions underlined, competition is critical. The players got better through hard work, preparation and coaches that had a game plan. The Springboks need all those components going forward in order to succeed. Moreover, the Springboks are going to have to continue to develop their attacking game. Being able to have a multi-faceted game is imperative and you need coaches that can develop it. You also need analysts who can analyse the opposition and find where their pressure points are, and players that are capable of implementing your game plans.
Which Lions players have impressed you? Is Malcolm Marx the real deal?
Marx is good. He has been around for a while and I keep an eye on him. Hookers today are bigger, faster and more dynamic and their attacking abilities are better owing to their running lines. However, we will have to wait and see if Marx can become even better than Bismarck du Plessis. One of Bismarck’s great strengths is his ability at the breakdown and that is an area Marx can further develop. Marx is a solid player, but the Lions forward who has really caught my eye is Jacques van Rooyen. He was quite exceptional in the semi-final against the Hurricanes. His work-rate, ball-carrying ability and his scrummaging is impressive. Players like him are worth their weight in gold. He is definitely one that I suspect is going to go on and play many games for the Springboks.
Your take on John Mitchell’s appointment as Bulls executive of rugby?
I don’t know what John is like as a coach, but he obviously likes living and coaching in South Africa. Having coached the Lions and now working with the Bulls maybe it’s something about the Highveld that appeals to him. I toured with John as a player and he did a great job with the All Blacks. (Mitchell is one of only three New Zealanders to have played for, captained and coached the All Blacks). I don’t know John’s coaching methods having not experienced them first-hand, but the Bulls board obviously see something in him and he is liked by South African at large because it’s his second dig at it in the Republic. He has gained great experience in Europe, Australasia and most recently America, and I’m sure his knowledge of the game will enhance Bulls and South African rugby. It’s good to have a foreign coaching influence and cross-pollination of ideas is always positive.
What’s your view ahead of the final and Jaco Peyper’s appointment?
The Lions played superbly against the Hurricanes, but on Saturday they will come up against a Crusaders team that is hugely motivated to win a Super Rugby title – they haven’t won it in nine years. The Crusaders have won seven Super Rugby titles and although a number of their playing personnel are All Blacks, there are only two players in the current team that have won a Super Rugby title (Kieran Read and Wyatt Crockett). They will be desperate to win the Super Rugby title and it should make for a great final. The Lions have played massive games against the Sharks and Hurricanes, and to back up those performances three weeks in a row is not easy. An All Black tight five for the Crusaders, along with the best No 8 and leader in world rugby at the moment in Kieran Read, will mean that the Lions will have to play exceptionally well to beat the Crusaders. It’s going to be one heck of a final and home ground advantage is going to be a leveller. In terms of the criticism of Peyper’s appointment for the final, I don’t agree with that at all. (SANZAAR’s decision to name South Africa’s Jaco Peyper as referee for Saturday’s Super Rugby final has drawn ire in New Zealand). Peyper is a world-class referee, is one of the best officials in the game and has done a pretty good job this term. I think we are past the days of having referees that are neutral (in terms of nationality) because officiating is a professional job. Glen Jackson, who oversaw the semi-final between the Crusaders and Chiefs, played for the latter team during his time in Super Rugby and his impartiality was not called to account. Criticising Peyper’s appointment smacks of double standards.