JOHANNESBURG - Another week, another unwanted record for Springbok coach Allister Coetzee and his team.
A worst-ever defeat to Ireland is another black mark against his name and speculation is growing that Rassie Erasmus’s return to SA Rugby headquarters as Director of Rugby is just a prelude to Coetzee getting the boot. While I’m not in favour of hiring and firing coaches willy-nilly, his employers might be getting more exasperated at the Boks continued onfield embarrassments. But, Coetzee hasn’t done himself any favours with regard to one critical part of a coaching job – that of selecting the team.
While I might believe that Coetzee is a poor selector, his coaching CV was certainly adequate enough at the time. Coetzee got the Bok job based on his experience as an assistant coach to Jake White from 2004-2007 and with Western Province and the Stormers from 2008-2015. He won two Currie Cup titles with Province and managed to get the Stormers to qualify for the play-off phase of Super Rugby four times out of five from 2010-2015. But his tenure in charge of the Stormers was marked by a worrying lack of ability to win tight play-off matches. The only knockout encounter they managed to win under Coetzee was the 2010 semi-final against the Waratahs before losing to the Bulls in that year’s final and bowing out at the first knockout phase in 2011, 2012 and 2015. And despite making them Super Rugby contenders again, he didn’t endear himself to the Cape rugby public with a grinding, defensive style of play. In fact, many pundits attribute the Stormers continued failures against better quality opposition they faced in knockout matches to their inability to score tries after falling behind.
But given that SA Rugby seemed unwilling or unable to afford a top overseas coach (successful Chiefs coach Dave Rennie’s name was linked at the time), and that Johan Ackermann’s Lions project was just starting to show signs of what they could achieve, at the time Coetzee seemed a safe local option to replace Heyneke Meyer. With the majority of the form players at his disposal in 2016 coming from the Lions, Coetzee showed himself unwilling or unable to maximise their abilities. Instead of adopting the quicker paced Lions pattern of play, he insisted on them playing a kicking-orientated game at the Boks. Coetzee dumped the likes of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies halfway through the international season when they were unable to shape up as tactical kickers in the mould of a Fourie du Preez. Bringing veteran flyhalf Morne Steyn back into the side saw the Boks bungle a win at Loftus against an equally limited Australian side. But that choice was proved to be a short-sighted, relying only on the boot of Steyn, any hopes of a revival were shattered in a (then) record 57-15 defeat to the All Blacks in Durban. Coetzee seemed to go into full-blown experimental mode during the end of year tour, chopping and changing players at will but it didn’t bring any change to the team’s fortunes with the Boks well-beaten by England and Wales and humiliated by a first-ever loss to Italy. The continued picking of Adriaan Strauss as Bok captain throughout the year, despite the fact that he had already indicated he was going to retire from international rugby, baffled. Surely it would have been better once Strauss had made his decision to give Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonanbi more minutes in 2016, knowing that they were going to be frontrunners for the Bok number two jersey in 2017? As did picking the ineffectual Oupa Mohoje time after time when the form flank in the country was Jaco Kriel. Kriel only got seven appearances off the bench in 2016 and proved his explosive worth when given a chance in 2017. To further illustrate these strange selections, let’s look at two of the loose-forward trios that Coetzee chose during the end of year tour. Now, I would say the ideal loose-forward combination is a big blindside flank who has mobility and work-rate and the physicality of a lock (Juan Smith is an ideal example), a tearaway opensider who plays to the ball and links with the backs (Richie McCaw) and a hard-as-nails number eight who is a combination of the two (Kieran Read). Against England, Coetzee’s selection of Willem Alberts, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Warren Whiteley proved too immobile to cope with the faster-paced game that Eddie Jones had the English playing. And in the third game on tour, Wales took advantage of a lightweight loose-forward combination of Uzair Cassiem, Nizaam Carr and Whiteley. All six of these players have individual merit when picked in the right combination. Neither of those two combinations can be remotely considered to be balanced selections.
Coetzee started 2017 off on a far better standing. He had jettisoned the lightweight assistant coaching team of Chean Roux and Mzwandile Stick, and the planning and conditioning for the season were in far better shape given the coaching indaba that SA Rugby called with all the Super Rugby franchises at the end of 2016. An average France side and a poor Argentina vintage were dispatched with some ease in the first Tests of the season. The pattern that the Boks were attempting to play was more similar to that of the Lions Super Rugby side that the spine of the Bok team was drawn from. But still, some selection issues seemed to be glaring given the heavyweight contests the Boks were about to face in Australia and New Zealand. Raymond Rhule was a surprising choice for the first Bok squad of the season, given that Makazole Mapimpi was the form wing in Super Rugby. Rhule’s defensive frailties were not an unknown quantity and most informed observers saw his occupation of the Bok number 14 jersey as a train wreck waiting to happen. As Coetzee persisted in choosing him, so it came to pass as the All Blacks engineered one on ones against him and ruthlessly exposed him in the 57-0 slaughter in Albany. Yet with all this proof in front of them, Rhule is once again back in the squad on the end of year tour, ready to wreak havoc in South Africa’s defensive ranks – with Mapimpi again ignored, despite being one of the top try-scorers in the Pro 14.
When choosing a squad of players for the end of year tour, Coetzee once again seems to be stubbornly choosing square pegs to try and shove into round holes. Despite looking keen to contribute and seeming to be the ideal 10 and 12 replacement behind Jantjies and Jan Serfontein, Frans Steyn was jettisoned by Coetzee after the France series. With Serfontein unavailable for the end of year tour, Steyn would again seem to have been an ideal number 12 replacement, bringing experience and the ability to cover a multitude of backline positions. At the very least, including Lions juggernaut Rohan Janse van Rensburg in the squad seemed wise. But instead, Coetzee chose one inside centre in Damian de Allende and three number 13s in his 34-man squad. With the horribly out of form De Allende clearly not up to it in the loss to Ireland, Coetzee would seem to have painted himself into corner. With no ready-made replacement, any one of Lukhanyo Am or Francois Venter might get thrust into that position against France, under the extreme pressure of trying to transform a disgraceful Bok backline performance. With an injury crisis that saw Whiteley, Kriel and Jean Luc du Preez ruled out before the tour, the Bok loose-forwards stocks were crying out for a couple of burly characters to complement Siya Kolisi on the other side of the scrum. Pieter-Steph du Toit was the man in possession of Bok number seven jersey, but there were no other players of that type selected. Both in terms of the balance of the squad and the know-how he could have given du Toit about playing loose-forward at Test level, the experienced Duane Vermeulen could have been called on. But Vermeulen has been ignored until the last possible minute. His call-up in the week of France Test as an injury replacement again does neither him nor the other “loosies” in the squad any favours. Vermeulen could have done with two weeks in camp to get back up to speed before being thrust back into action with a dysfunctional side.
Other selections, like that of using Ruan Dreyer in the crunch Rugby Championship matches despite his scrumming difficulties were unfortunately forced on Coetzee. I say unfortunately because in some respects, Coetzee had no choice other than to choose too many what I call “Wynand Oliviers” in the Bok team of 2017. Olivier was a talented Super Rugby level player who had many good seasons for the Bulls, but never fully convinced in a Bok jersey. But he hardly ever let the team down because the Bok backlines of his era were populated with true world class players like Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana. That’s not a luxury the Springbok squad of 2017 has. The Bok forwards have generally at least been adequate but other than Jan Serfontein, no Bok backline player this year has looked comfortable at international level. Jesse Kriel looks incapable of making space for his outside backs. The outside backs like Courtnall Skosan and Andries Coetzee look less than capable in defence and under the high ball. When asked to kick up and unders, Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies look far from the players they seemed when playing for the Lions in Super Rugby. All of them have their weaknesses. But it sometimes seems the Bok gameplan is designed to bring those weaknesses out into the open and highlight them when, perhaps, with the side struggling as it is, Bok management could leave that sort of thing up to the opposition.
The standard bearers of the professional game are clearly New Zealand. All Black sides of the modern era have achieved their enviable win-loss ratio because they have been better coached and better conditioned and have a pool of more skilled and multi-skilled players. Countries who aspire to keep pace with or try and overhaul New Zealand on the international stage have improved their sides by either upskilling their own coaches or importing foreign help in order to give their players the best-possible chance at the elite level. That is not to say that trying to emulate New Zealand’s standards of excellence mean that one has to try and emulate their style of play – although to think that you can play 10-man rugby and stand a chance of coming close is ignoring the realities of modern rugby. England and Ireland have done best at this over the past few years and are truly top-quality sides. Wales, Scotland and Australia are probably a step behind, held back more by a lack of resources than willingness to try and excel. Where do Allister Coetzee’s Springboks fall in this modern pecking order? Currently they are ranked fifth in the World Rugby rankings and the trend seems to be down, given that every match they play against sides ranked higher than them seems to end in record-defeat. South Africa are due to play New Zealand in the Pool stages of the next Rugby World Cup in 2019. At the moment, the result of that match is not even in doubt. In fact, given the current Bok performances, it is no given that they will beat Italy to progress out of the pool. For the All Blacks to have better players than the Springboks should not dismay Bok fans. A rugby nation of their calibre will always have a few, as will the “Big Six Nations” sides. But for South Africa to be such no-hopers in terms of being competitive suggests a bankruptcy at coaching level that is unacceptable both to fans and, hopefully, to the administration of SA Rugby. It seems Coetzee’s term in charge of the Boks is drawing to a close. Asking SA Rugby to choose a management team that has the coherence of thought to pick a balanced side that maximises their effectiveness and at least approach New Zealand’s playing standards is, surely, not too much to ask for?