Poisoned cup awaits new Bok coach
If the South African Rugby Union (Saru) can make a decision at its executive meeting on Friday, we will have a new Springbok coach by Saturday. The smart money is on Allister Coetzee, but the nagging thought remains that if the former Stormers man was going to take the job, it would have been announced before Christmas.
Logic suggests that Coetzee’s lucrative contract with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan would trump coaching the Springboks, with all the grief it tends to entail, but the history of the role has often defied logic. Hence, it is quite possible that Saru has found a large trunk of money to convince Coetzee to stay at home.
If he is entrusted with the job, Coetzee will be the 13th national coach in the post-isolation era and the 24th overall. As with so many other things, Danie Craven was the first man to coach the Springboks, between 1949 and 1956. Hitherto the most important people in the game were the selectors and it was generally down to the senior players to organise tactics.
Craven ruled rugby in this country until he died in 1993, but even in death he affected the game. He installed Blue Bulls coach John Williams in the top job after South Africa’s emergence from isolation, but he lost four out of five games and stepped down.
The most qualified replacement was Ian McIntosh, the visionary who had brought the Sharks (then Natal) out of the B-section in the late 1980s and early 1990s and turned them into a force to be reckoned with.
But McIntosh had never been a Springbok. He wasn’t even South African, having been born and raised near Bulawayo. He was, then, according to Craven’s unwritten rule, ineligible to coach the Boks. Accordingly, the message went out to Gerrie Sonnekus in the Free State that his country needed him.
Sonnekus was not a terribly distinguished Springbok, but beggars can’t be choosers. He made his Test debut in the third Test of the disastrous series against the 1974 British Lions. An eighth man by trade, he was selected at scrumhalf, a laughably naive tactical decision that ensured Sonnekus would forever be known as the worst number nine in Bok history.
Ten years later he played two Tests in his rightful position against the touring England side, but by the time the Boks played South America at Loftus Versfeld in October that year, Sonnekus had lost his place to a dynamic fellow from Western Province by the name of Nick Mallett.
When Sarfu (as Saru was known back then) approached Sonnekus in 1993 to offer him the job of Bok coach, they were not to know that the shadow of financial impropriety had fallen over him. The press got hold of the story, Sonnekus stepped aside, and eventually Sarfu were forced to go cap in hand to McIntosh. So it was Mac who appointed Francois Pienaar as captain for the first home Test of 1993, against France in Durban.
Sarfu’s climb-down was an important moment, opening the door of the laager to allow half a dozen non-Springboks to coach the national side since 1993.
The best of them, Kitch Christie and Jake White, won the World Cups of 1995 and 2007 respectively. The worst of them – Harry Viljoen – turned the Springboks into a laughing stock. Viljoen’s mantra of “I don’t know, but I know a man who does” created a vastly inflated and largely unnecessary support staff that exists to this day, albeit in a slightly diluted form.
Viljoen took 15 support staff on the tour to Europe and the United States in 2001. To fight off the boredom of daily training sessions, the staff would play sevens against each other. Viljoen began his reign against Argentina in Buenos Aires, with Percy Montgomery out of position at flyhalf and under strict instructions never to kick the ball. He ended it in Houston a year later with Louis Koen at flyhalf and Braam van Straaten at inside centre, two men who only ever passed the ball in an emergency.
The next coaching shibboleth to fall was rather more significant than merely never having played for the Springboks. In 2008 Peter de Villiers became the first person of colour to coach the national side. History will judge Saru harshly for waiting so long to break the colour bar – more so because as soon as De Villiers was stood down after defeat in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup, Saru reverted to type by appointing a white Afrikaner, Heyneke Meyer.
In retrospect, and with no disrespect to Meyer, Coetzee should have taken the reins in 2012. Unlike De Villiers, who had no track record with a major side other than South Africa’s under-21s, Coetzee was perfectly qualified. He had served an admirable apprenticeship, helping Jake White to the Webb Ellis trophy in 2007 and producing competitive Stormers teams year in and year out in Super Rugby. Manifestly, however, the governing body has a history of overlooking qualified people.
Whoever the new coach is, he will inherit the poisoned chalice of transformation. Saru has produced a charter confirming that the Springbok team at the 2019 World Cup will be at least 50% black. The new coach will be expected to drive that dynamic from day one. It is easy to see why a dollar-based three-year sinecure in Japan might seem tempting.