Coetzee faces tough challenge as new Springbok rugby coach

Coetzee steps into the Bok coaching minefield. (Luke Walker, Gallo)

Coetzee steps into the Bok coaching minefield. (Luke Walker, Gallo)

Allister Coetzee’s appointment as Springbok coach on Tuesday exposed the worst-kept secret in South African sport. It would appear that the only reason the South African Rugby Union (Saru) waited so long to make the announcement was to avoid a costly contractual dispute with the Kobelco Steelers. The hiatus means, however, that by now Coetzee should know how to succeed in his new job.
All he has to do is be ruthless.

That’s easier said than done in many ways, of course, not least because Coetzee is a gentle soul with outstanding diplomatic skills. Nevertheless, he will need to draw a line in the sand early. Saru has not imposed draconian rules about selecting overseas-based players, but at least for his first season in charge Coetzee should stick to home-grown talent.

The fact of the matter is that many first-choice players of his predecessor, Heyneke Meyer, have either retired (Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez) or are now the wrong side of 30 with waning powers (Schalk Burger, Bryan Habana and many more). Coetzee is at the start of a four-year plan to take a team to the 2019 World Cup that will not feature a single player with experience at the 2007 version.

And unlike Meyer in 2012, Coetzee has a transformation agenda to implement that cannot simply be forgotten about in the quest for wins. By 2019, 50% of the match-day squad must be black. Saru’s commitment to the coach is that it will come down heavily on franchises and provinces that don’t pick enough players of colour.

Right now there are too few of those campaigning in Super Rugby, but there is someone in every position who would be a worthy choice in the Springbok team. From 15 to one, if Coetzee needed to pick a side tomorrow it might look like this: Cheslin Kolbe, Seabelo Senatla, Lionel Mapoe, Juan de Jongh, Lwazi Mvovo, Elton Jantjies, Rudy Paige, Siya Kolisi, Nizaam Carr, Thembelani Bholi, Lubabalo Mtyanda, Oupa Mohoje, Trevor Nyakane, Edgar Marutlulle, Tendai Mtawarira.

Around the country there would be a large collective intake of breath if that side were to be selected for the first Test against Ireland in June, but the huge positive about it is that Coetzee can strengthen it immensely merely by selecting a few white players.

Faf de Klerk goes straight in as the form scrumhalf and his Lions teammate, Jaco Kriel, should be the open-side flank. The Stormers lock pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit is among the best in the world right now, and Frans Malherbe should be the starting tight-head prop. The bench would include players such as Adriaan Strauss, Warren Whiteley, Franco Mostert, Jesse Kriel, Willie le Roux and, once he regains fitness, Pat Lambie.

The point is that Coetzee has a clean slate. Very few contracted players remain on the books following last year’s World Cup, so the important thing for the coach to remember is to be ruthless. Reverse the template for once: make a white player show twice as much ability as a black player to merit inclusion. Come down heavily on him if he makes a few costly mistakes.

Fortunately, all of this is irrelevant in the case of Coetzee. He is a career coach with almost 20 years in the hot seat behind him. In rugby terms he knows the difference between a sheep and a goat and, as his long tenure at the Stormers proved, he trusts the players he selects regardless of skin colour.

Much of his coaching character was defined early. A quarter of a century ago, Coetzee was the last captain of the nonracial Saru team. They never played an international game but, as Coetzee told sports writer Firdose Moonda last year: “It was the pinnacle. I was extremely proud of it.”

When rugby became, nominally at least, nonracial in the early 1990s, Coetzee was able to turn out for Eastern Province in the Currie Cup. In a team that included such legendary players as Danie Gerber, Adri Geldenhuys and Frans Erasmus, Coetzee shared the number nine jersey with Springbok scrumhalf Garth Wright. The two were of a similar age and played the same style of game.

Wright recalls: “Allister was an outstanding scrumhalf. He wasn’t a big guy, so he didn’t play the extra loose forward way. He spent more time working out how to go around players than through them. He kicked well and had a good pass. He was always a great analyser of opposition strengths and weaknesses.”

The latter attribute eased his career path and as soon as he stopped playing, Coetzee got into coaching, spending two years under Ian McIntosh at the Sharks. He was also one of Harry Viljoen’s army with the Springboks in 2000, before returning to Eastern Province as head coach between 2001 and 2003.

They were not easy years, as Wright says: “When he came in as coach he had a tough time, but you might say that it reflected the tough times the union was going through and it made him strong.”

He will need all his strength to combat the tough times he will face in the next four years. There will be times when the urbane, confident fellow who faced the press with such aplomb on Tuesday will look haunted and wan. He will wish those same media people would shut up about the latest defeat and, more than anything, he will wish away Saru’s transformation charter.

But unlike Harry Viljoen, he will not walk away after a year in charge and go back to the world of business. That’s because rugby is Allister Coetzee’s business.

Rich rugby brains trust ripe for the picking

New Springbok coach Allister Coetzee will have a smaller staff under him than his predecessor, Heyneke Meyer, did. Team manager Ian Schwartz has been retained, while Johann van Graan remains as forwards coach. Gone are assistant forwards coach Pieter de Villiers (not to be confused with the former Bok coach Peter de Villiers), defence coach John McFarland and backs coach Ricardo Loubscher.

Coetzee confirmed at Tuesday’s press conference that he would also be leaning on the “coaching mobi unit” established by the South African Rugby Union under the aegis of their high-performance manager, Rassie Erasmus. Defence and attack specifics are likely to be the main concern of Erasmus’s team.

The new backline coach is Mzwandile Stick, the former captain of the South African sevens team. It is a meteoric rise for the 31-year-old, who ended his playing career as a flyhalf for the Kings. Last year Stick coached the Kings under-19 side to victory in the Currie Cup, beating the Blue Bulls in the final. As a player Stick was fast and elusive, which is exactly what Coetzee wants to promote in the Springbok team.

But if his management team has been streamlined, Coetzee’s selection committee has been grossly enlarged. Ian McIntosh’s long tenure has come to an end, but his perennial colleague Pieter Jooste has been retained. Jooste will be joined by Erasmus and by the franchise coaches from Super Rugby. Nollis Marais, Franco Smith, Johan Ackermann, Gary Gold, Deon Davids and Robbie Fleck will meet Coetzee and Jooste weekly to discuss their players’ form.

This is more than a touch unwieldy and ignores the fact that coaches will be overseas for many meetings. It also asks for an objective stance that is in direct contrast to their weekly duties. What is really required is three or four former players or coaches who are not currently in the system.

Failing that, the New Zealand model has much to recommend it. Former All Black coaches meet for lunch every month and report back to the current coach on ideas emanating from there. Imagine a brains trust of Meyer, Peter de Villiers, Jake White, Rudolf Straeuli, Nick Mallett and Carel du Plessis.

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