SEAN Everitt has only been in his new post as Edinburgh Rugby’s senior coach for a couple of weeks. With 16 members of his squad having been absent on national duty ahead of the Rugby World Cup, he has as yet had no chance to get to know all of the players he will work with in the coming season.
Even so, the South African has already established very firm expectations for Edinburgh when it comes to the new URC campaign. And, in the shorter term, having worked with some of the key members of the Springboks squad during a coaching career which up until this month had been spent entirely within South Africa, he also has a very clear idea of what Scotland will need to do to upset the odds when the two countries meet in their first pool match in the tournament a week on Sunday.
In common with the bookmakers, many of whom make the Boks third favourites behind hosts France and New Zealand to win the tournament, Everitt thinks his home nation have a good chance of retaining the trophy they won in Japan in 2019. Nonetheless, he gives Scotland a decent chance of taking their scalp in the Pool B game.
And lest you think that those two things would cancel each other out, remember that the Springboks lost their first match four years ago – 23-13 to the All Blacks – but then beat the hosts in the last eight and Wales in the semi-final before thumping England 32-12 in the final itself. Before the 2019 tournament, Edinburgh’s South African scrum-half Nic Groom was asked to predict an outcome and got it spot on, saying that an initial defeat would be the catalyst for a Springboks triumph. So, at a Murrayfield press conference on Wednesday morning, it seemed appropriate to start by asking Everitt what he expects this time round.
Q: What do you expect of South Africa in general at the World Cup, and what do you expect of their game against Scotland in particular?
Sean Everitt: “I think the chances of South Africa winning the World Cup are really good. I think they’ve shown good form of late, and they’re probably the most cohesive team, second to Ireland in that regard.
“They understand what they’re doing. They have a simple and clear plan and everyone knows their role, and knows it really well. I don’t think you can expect too much different from the Boks going into the World Cup.
“But my prediction in that opening game, looking at the form of Scotland of late, it’s also been really good. If Finn Russell is on song and he manages the game correctly then the Springboks could be in trouble.
“When you play against the Springboks it is important you don’t concede turnovers, because they generate a lot of their attacks from turnover ball and that is due to their aggressive defence – and they do get what they want in that regard. The other thing would be not to concede penalties, as they are really dangerous in your 22 and they put a lot of pressure on you from their maul.
“As we saw on Friday night [when South Africa beat New Zealand 35-7 at Twickenham], although they didn’t get success early on, them using their maul leads to fatigue in the opposition. Knowing what they have coming off the bench, they know late on they can get on top of you, which they did against the All Blacks who found it difficult, especially with an unusual 7-1 split [on the bench].
“But ultimately, your team’s only as good as your set piece. If Scotland can limit set-piece opportunities for South Africa and be disciplined in their performance then they will have a shot at the Boks. And I think the Boks would be worried about Scotland right now.”
That 7-1 split has become a real talking point. Do you expect them to go with that against Scotland, and will it become a wider trend within the sport?
Sean Everitt: “It depends on the versatility you have amongst your forwards. I don’t think 7-1 will be a trend in rugby unless teams go for players that are so versatile they can go for 75 minutes on the wing.
“They [South Africa] do it because of what they have, and the 7-1 was just circumstantial. They had a late pull-out and decided to go with an extra forward on the bench to give that guy more game time in preparation for the World Cup.
“In the past the Boks have gone 6-2, and that is due to the versatility of Faf de Klerk who can play at 9 or 10 and is quite comfortable on the wing. When you have guys like Grant Williams coming off the bench and he is one of the quickest in the team he can fit in quite well, as well as Cobus Reinach, as we saw on Saturday. So I think the Boks will continue with their 6-2 split, as that has done them well over the last five years and they won’t want to change.”
You have worked with Springboks captain Siya Kolisi, new star Canan Moodie and (albeit briefly) key lock forward Eben Etzebeth. Tell us a bit about what you make of all three.
Sean Everitt: “Siya’s performances look like they are up there with his best again, and it is quite incredible for a guy who was due to miss out on the World Cup [through injury]. He has made a quick recovery. He is an inspiration to the country and the country backs him 100 per cent. He takes responsibility on the park and is a popular guy amongst his team mates. He leads from the front like a true warrior.
“Etzebeth has a massive impact on the team from a physicality point of view. He’s a great competitor and he’s just got better with age.
“The game that stands out for me was when he made his debut for the Sharks against Glasgow last year at Kings Park. He destroyed the Glasgow lineout pretty much on his own, and the physicality he brought to the table in the 80 minutes in that performance was something not many people have witnessed at Kings Park. He’s colossal in the job he’s set out to do.
“I just think that Canan is one of those guys who has been born with an unbelievable talent. He’s only played a handful of Test matches, and he played on the wing. To come into a Test match [v New Zealand] not having played at 13 for so many years, I thought he was really good. It just shows what a talent he is.
“He’s a very tall backline player, so he is able to get his arms through and offload the ball, and continuity is key in scoring tries. He would be a threat to any opposition.”
Q: Edinburgh lost all four of their URC games against South African teams last season – can you fix this?
Sean Everitt: “Yes, they did. I was probably the unfortunate one that lost to Edinburgh [while coaching the Sharks] at Kings Park two years ago and we were caught a bit by surprise by our own weather that day. When we play against northern-hemisphere teams in Durban we’re hoping for a hot, humid day of 35 degrees, which it was the whole week. And then in the morning we woke up and the field was almost flooded, so it did play into their hands a little bit and that day we weren’t as good as we should have been in our execution.
“And in those conditions the bounce of the ball has to go your way a little bit too, and Edinburgh did really well.
“South African teams are all strong defensively, and they are very physical in their approach to the game from a defensive point of view and a set-piece point of view. And it’s for us just to be a little bit smarter in how we play and how we manage the game in our own half.”
Q: What is your plan for Edinburgh and what specific areas of the game need most attention?
Sean Everitt: “I’ve admired Edinburgh’s rugby for quite a long time, and being involved in coaching against them at Kings Park and doing a lot of work on them and analysis prior to my arrival, they play a really exciting brand of rugby.
“The philosophy of Edinburgh Rugby is similar to mine. I enjoy their attacking style. I’m an attack-minded coach, although I have coached on the other side of the ball. There’s not a hell of a lot that needs to change at Edinburgh. I think there’s a great foundation that has been laid over the last few years. I think Mike Blair has done a good job. But there are small things that need to get fixed.
“If you look at the games where Edinburgh have come short in the last URC campaign, it would probably be from a turnover point of view – turnovers conceded. In a game against Saracens, for instance, a game that they lost 30-26, they could easily have won that game had they not conceded as many turnovers. And that seems to be a trend within the group, so we need to tighten up in attack and be more accurate there.
“And then the biggest one for me is obviously defensively, but that’s linked to the turnovers that you concede – if you leak a lot of turnovers you are going to be under the pump from a defensive point of view. So we need to tighten up the defence, because although we scored a lot of tries we also conceded a lot of tries.
“So it’s an area that we’re working on really hard at the moment. The players have been in a long pre-season – I think they’ve been together now for three months. We’ve been working on the fundamentals, and Steve Diamond has led the coaching group really well over that period.
“So defensively would be one. And then something that a lot of people lose sight of is our goal-kicking accuracy. Edinburgh kicked 62 per cent in the URC, so when you’re losing games narrowly, you tend to over-analyse where those faults are, and they’re staring you straight in the face.
“We need to kick 80 per cent plus if you want to challenge for a trophy.”
Q: Who will be your first-choice goal-kicker?
Sean Everitt: “At the moment James Lang is kicking really well and he’ll probably be first choice when the international players are away. Tim Swiel, who has been a late recruit, is also a goal-kicker if he can make the starting 23 – we’re going to have a close look at him over the next several weeks and see where he’s at.
“And then we’ve got choices when the internationals come back. We’ve got Ben Healy, Emiliano Boffell and Blair Kinghorn.”
Q: You have been appointed as ‘senior coach’, not head coach, on an initial one-year deal. SRU chief executive Mark Dodson has said ‘We may also take the opportunity to make additions to further strengthen the coaching group as the season progresses’. How secure do you feel with that threat of someone coming in above you?
Sean Everitt: “Well, we’re not sure of where the coaches’ needs will be. I think it’s all around how the team functions, whether they bring in extra coaches or not.
“We will always look to strengthen our coaching staff like we do to strengthen our playing group. And that would be the same for any other franchise.
“You’re never secure in this job, because it’s result-based and we know how professional sport can be. But I’m here to do a job and lead the coaching team and do the best that I can do.
“I do feel from time to time we need to bring specialist coaches in to assist. We’ve got a young coaching staff that are inexperienced in a way: look at Michael Todd – he’s 33, he has got a lot of rugby coaching experience, maybe not in the URC itself. But they are knowledgeable and they’ve got a lot of potential. Between the four of us I think we’ll provide the team with the necessary equipment to do well.”
Q: What will constitute success for Edinburgh this season?
Sean Everitt: “Success for Edinburgh would be to get back into the top eight and qualify for the Champions Cup. There will be challenges for us, with having 16 internationals out for the first two rounds, and that’s the reason why we’ve worked incredibly hard with this young group at the moment.
“The home play-offs would always be our goal. We do see top eight as the major goal, but we’d like to see ourselves challenging for competitions and cups and be at home in semi-finals.”