Cull could bring Mallett back as Springbok coach

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The Independent Online

The culling season continued apace yesterday as Rudi Straeuli and Rian Oberholzer, two of the principal power-brokers in the world game, quit their respective jobs as Springbok coach and managing director of the professional wing of South African rugby. A few rungs down the ladder, at the bottom of the English Premiership, life was no more comfortable for the Rotherham coach, Mike Schmid, who suddenly discovered he would be dealing with kids rather than grown-ups. It is, as they say in the trade, a tough old game.

Straeuli and Oberholzer were half-buried beneath a small mountain of pressure before the World Cup, thanks largely to their much-criticised handling of a racism scandal involving the Blue Bulls lock forward Geo Cronje, who allegedly refused to share a training-camp room with a black colleague, Quinton Davids.

South Africa's subsequent capitulation in Australia, where they were beaten both by England and New Zealand, gave added impetus to calls for drastic measures at the top, and when details emerged of the Boks' preparation for the tournament - a laughably over-the-top military-style operation at the delightfully named "Kamp Staldraad" (camp of barbed wire) - the heat became unbearable.

A third senior Springbok official, the South African Rugby Football Union president, Silas Nkanunu, also appears vulnerable to the winds of change - he is being challenged by the Johannesburg businessman Brian van Rooyen, who has the support of at least seven of the 14 provinces making up the front rank of domestic rugby in the republic.

But Straeuli and Oberholzer are the big fish, and their many opponents in Springbok circles believe their departures will allow Nick Mallett to resume the coaching position he held between November 1997 and August 2000, when Oberholzer engineered his demise.

Mallett is currently in charge at Stade Français, the crack Parisian club who won the French Championship last season. His record as the national coach - 27 victories in 38 matches, including 17 on the bounce - was second only to that of the late Kitch Christie, who won all 14 of his Tests, and there are significant numbers of Springbok followers who never understood why Oberholzer felt the need to ease him out. Support for Mallett's immediate reinstatement is growing by the day.

Steph Nel - another South African, and Rotherham's new director of rugby - has undertaken a root-and-branch restructuring of the club's coaching set-up.

Geoff Wappett, a northerner with long experience of representative rugby, is the new team manager and assistant coach; Alan Zondagh will continue in a consultative capacity; and Mike Umaga has been retained as the player-coach.

Schmid, however, finds himself moving directly from head coach to academy coach without passing "Go" - a demotion on the grandest of scales.

"Nobody has lost his job," Nel said yesterday, "but I have assessed players and management and put them into clearly defined roles. Mike will be in charge of the academy, the development team and the scouting network."

Rotherham open their Parker Pen Challenge Cup campaign this evening with a home match against Narbonne, a very useful French outfit featuring top-notch Argentinian internationals in Martin Scelzo and Gonzalo Longo.

However, most eyes will be on events in Wales, where the newly formed Celtic Warriors and the more familiar scarlet-shirted hordes of Llanelli usher in the Heineken Cup with matches against Calvisano and Northampton respectively.

Northampton have included one of their World Cup-winning contingent, the left wing Ben Cohen, in the starting line-up, and plan to introduce a couple more - Steve Thompson, the hooker, and Paul Grayson, the outside-half - off the bench during the second half.

* Gavin Hastings has ruled himself out of the running to be the new Scottish Rugby Union chief executive.

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