In South Africa, success for young rugby coaches invariably leads to two things: self-affirmation and growing popularity.
Both apply to Katleho Lynch, who admits the former helps drive his vision while the latter has led to several phone calls. Not that he’s budging. He enjoys St John’s, and the people and the environment appeal to his sensibilities. It’s also the perfect place to dig in and polish his coaching game.
As the re-appointed SA Schools under-18 coach, he recently led his young players against the heavyweight challengers, France and England, in Cape Town. The side returned scores of 24-37 against France, followed by a tremendous 33-19 comeback against England. Last year, he oversaw wins over both teams in the corresponding fixtures.
He is buoyant about rugby at St John’s, which has shown an upward trajectory during his four years at the school. Even though the most recent vintage of first XV boys never had quite the cachet of the 2022 side, they performed better, which was on account of several coaching tweaks and a more direct playing approach.
As Al Pacino’s character famously reflected about American football in Any Given Sunday, it’s a game of inches. So, too, with rugby, with the gains often marginal but no less critical.
This is arguably more true with St John’s than most. Player recruitment is anathema to the school. The focus is instead on being creative and rolling up their sleeves. It may seem naïve today, but it is a noble philosophy that probably produces more-rounded boys. Rugby is important to St John’s, but not all-important, a distinction Lynch recognises and is happy to work within.
His journey to this point was nothing if not unorthodox.
As a youngster, he was a dynamo tearaway wing who scored dozens of tries for Alberton High.
A brief interlude at the Sharks Academy followed, as did the reality that, for all his ambition and bustling energy, he probably wasn’t going to be the next Bryan Habana.
Fast forward a dozen or so years, and he is the head rugby coach at St John’s, not quite as quick as he once was, but plenty more astute in the machinations of rugby. That’s because his passion for the game took him down the complex alleyway of coaching, where his deep thinking and quest to make players better gave him a hunger that drove him to this point.
He wasn’t going to be a Springbok, but perhaps he could help unearth some.
At just 34, he has been the architect of the St John’s vibrant rugby programme, albeit a stop-start one due to the pandemic. Now, in his fourth year at the school, success has come quickly with a shared confidence and a sense of achievement that has been palpable through all sides.
Along the way, he has also been noticed by the higher-ups at SA Rugby and signed up as assistant coach with the Golden Lions at Craven Week. Results waxed and waned, but many promising under-17s suggest next year may prove far better.
As pathways to the top go, Lynch is doing all the right things and is happy to have support from the broad St John’s community and teaching faculty.
He cut his teeth as a schoolboy coach at St Benedict’s, famously crafting a win over a formidable Jeppe Boys side in 2017. His experience in Bedfordview did more than confirm his career path. It helped him learn the softer side of coaching.
“It was about understanding individuals, how to lead and how to make myself better,” he recalled. “At the time, I thought I was so good, but I look back now, and I made so many mistakes.”
Not for him, the old-school coaching style of barking at and bullying players. He has a penchant for coaching defence, but he also enjoys helping mould young men and throwing different personalities together and making the mix work. He’s nuanced and understated.
Ask him who he most admires among coaches, and he throws up an eclectic combination: Fellow Junior Springbok coach pal Bafana Nhleko, Eddie Jones (“a trendsetter”) and Scott Robertson for his energy.
It wasn’t always so. The Boks stoked his passion in his own playing days, chiefly wings like JP Pietersen, Habana and Justin Swart. He had a liking, too, for the late Solly Tyibilika, a rangy loose forward who emerged from the townships.
Of his time at St John’s, Lynch is satisfied with the alignment he has brought to the teams.
He’s helped develop a curriculum to which all the coaches now have access. Happily, it isn’t prescriptive; rather, it offers a stylistic framework within which boys can express themselves. Even the mavericks can be accommodated.
Indeed, St John’s isn’t known for producing over-size rugby players, so Lynch encourages skills, pace and rugby smarts, a shrewd counter-balance to the more one-dimensional operators we see across the SA rugby hinterland.
If Lynch seems like a rugby obsessive, it’s not a tag he seems keen to shake. He loves poring over game footage and analysing matches at home and is popular on social media, throwing out his views to the Twitterati, who enjoy his technical insights.
Although he’s up to his elbows in analysis, he still reckons rugby is behind football in terms of progress, data, statistics, trends, and models. He wants to help bridge this gap.
He enjoys his time at St John’s because it offers balance. Away from rugby, he’s the housemaster of Fleming and relishes fulfilling this pastoral role. Whether offering an ear or quiet counsel, it’s part of the job he loves. Seeing boys develop, whether they play rugby or not, is something he particularly enjoys.
His own development is well on track. ”I’ve found something I really love, and there’s no better feeling than seeing players succeed because of planning and preparation.”
Naturally enthusiastic, he speaks glowingly of South African rugby’s prolific schoolboy rugby system and the opportunities it offers players and coaches.
Lynch won’t be a schoolboy coach forever and probably isn’t far off a franchise-level job. He’s on the fast track to a long career that he hopes will one day culminate in coaching the Springboks. Many of the world’s finest international coaches, including Eddie Jones, Jake White and Nick Mallett, cut their coaching teeth at the school level.
There’s no reason Lynch can’t dare dream.