JOHANNESBURG – It wasn’t too long ago that the Springboks hired a “security consultant”, a bloke who took his job so seriously that he’d scout hamburger joints before allowing the Boks to go inside.
This same spook was the architect of Kamp Staaldraad, the infamous training camp, and we all remember how that grubby episode ended.
If Adriaan Heijns’ paranoia was the stuff of inside jokes, a spying episode in England in recent weeks caused a ruckus. Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds United coach, admitted to sending a member of his staff to watch a Derby training session from a vantage point on a highway.
It was hardly earth-shattering – little more than a coach shrewdly employing his options – but condemnation was swift and heavy. Jermaine Jenas even called for a points deduction. No-one was hurt, no rule was breached. Little wonder Bielsa was bemused.
Spying and subterfuge have long been staples of major sport. Even in England, where a Huddersfield kit manager once fell through a ceiling into the away dressing room’s half-time team talk.
One year, Sir Alex Ferguson buzzed Manchester City’s training ground in a helicopter. Several cups of teas were spilled by the chattering classes.
And who will forget the Ferrari mechanic passing on information to a good friend, who happened to be McLaren’s chief designer? He copped a 20-month prison sentence for, among other things, industrial espionage and fraud.
Serious business, although it isn’t always so.
Spies have long been a staple of Springbok rugby tours where dodgy-looking men hiding in bushes are routinely chased away. In 2001, one was exposed as a coach at a Sydney club and a mate of Eddie Jones. Denials were swift, although, just this week Jones admitted to having spied on rival teams.
“I can remember sending a coach who is now in a very senior position dressed like a swagman to watch one team train and he got chased out of there,” quipped the England coach.
Also in 2001, former Bok coach Nick Mallett visited the touring French team in Cape Town, checking in with old pals and team-mates.
Inevitably, he became embroiled in claims that he had supplied video of Springbok training sessions that somehow made its way into the French camp. “A load of rubbish,” roared Mallett.
If it’s all mainly a bit of harmless, if overstated, fun, spying does occasionally veer into hazardous territory. Several years ago, the All Blacks found a listening device secured inside a chair in one of their team rooms in Sydney. Suspicions soon focused on the Wallabies, who flatly denied any involvement.
In a strange twist, the All Blacks very own head of security was fingered for the incident.
Things ended up in court but in 2016 the security boss had his public mischief charge dismissed. Even now, the mystery lingers.
In the US, the New England Patriots recorded the New York Jets’ defensive coaches’ signals from an unauthorised location. The NFL fined the head coach $500000.
And so it goes.
For all the hullabaloo raised by Bielsa’s actions, all he did was carry out due diligence. Anyone who can exploit such opportunities, so long as they aren’t illegal, deserves his pay.
Spying on rivals may be morally dubious, but contemporary sport is all about marginal gains.
Spying pays. So long as you aren’t caught.