Bok coach Coetzee feels heat from all sides
There will come a time in the course of the build-up to the next World Cup when Springbok coach Allister Coetzee will wonder how much worse things could become.
When that moment arrives, he should watch the video of the first half of the second Test match against Ireland, for it is doubtful that this Springbok side could ever plumb such depths again.
In the modern era, there are a few performances that may have been equally poor: the 53-3 drubbing by England at Twickenham in 2002 and the 52-16 surrender at the hands of the All Blacks in Pretoria nine months later spring instantly to mind. Like Johannesburg in 2016, the invisible aura that Springbok teams are supposed to possess was conspicuous by its absence.
Early in his tenure, Coetzee now finds himself in an uncomfortable place.
Win on Saturday and he will be lauded for overcoming adversity; lose and he will be pilloried for losing the plot. Worse than that, his selections will be mercilessly mulled over as examples of how not to move the country forward through rugby.
No other coach in the world game has to cope with the same issues as Coetzee. Assaulted on all sides for not picking enough black players, two Tests in he has to admit that those he backed have let him down. After two less than impressive displays off the bench, Trevor Nyakane has departed with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, Siya Kolisi and Lwazi Mvovo have looked woefully short of the form each displays regularly in Super Rugby.
When Willem Alberts was injured in training at last year’s World Cup, Heyneke Meyer refused to pick Kolisi in his place. Instead he played Pieter-Steph du Toit out of position on the flank against Japan. What happened next is well known, although few will now remember that Du Toit made way for Kolisi in the 57th minute.
Last Saturday, the roles were reversed, with Kolisi replaced in the final quarter by Franco Mostert and Du Toit moving to the flank. That it was not a planned move was evident from Du Toit’s bemused body language. Clearly though, it had an effect, as the Boks turned up the heat to win.
Now put yourself in the coach’s position. You clear the bench early, overturn a 19-3 halftime deficit to win the game and tie the series, and as the final whistle goes you have seven Lions players on the pitch, four more than you had in the team that started the previous week. Either through strategic brilliance or desperation you win over a crowd who booed the team off at halftime. What do you do for an encore?
Now say hello to reality. Nyakane and Lood de Jager have gone home injured so you can’t pick Du Toit on the flank and you are short a prop who can play either side in the scrum. Ruan Combrinck is credited as being the man who provided the catalyst off the bench on Saturday, but to pick him in the starting side you have to drop a black player.
Then, on Wednesday, union federation Cosatu releases a media statement saying: “Members of the Springboks who had previously approached Cosatu to look into the lack of transformation have signalled that there is a group of white players who want to see this integrated team and coach fail. This may be behind the bad performance of some of the players in the last two Tests.”
Ordinarily Coetzee could laugh off the attempted politicisation of the scenario but these are not ordinary times. Before the Cape Town Test, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) managed to convince the ANC Youth League that there was indeed a transformation charter in play. Last-minute diplomacy averted the threatened protests, but it looks like more will be needed in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
So, although Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has spent the week studying videos and working out where to apply the pressure on Saturday, his opposite number has had somewhat more to concern himself with.
At least two things have gone Coetzee’s way. In the injury-enforced absence of Pat Lambie, Elton Jantjies’s broken finger has not affected the pivot’s game, and Duane Vermeulen’s elbow injury has saved the coach the task of dropping the man he pleaded with Saru for.
It is common cause now that Vermeulen was a controversial inclusion and his departure opens up the sluice gates to further speculation. The promotion of Warren Whiteley to the starting team should have happened in Cape Town. Not only that, but Whiteley should have been made captain.
Instead, Adriaan Strauss was handed the armband. Some way short of the form he showed while under-studying Bismarck du Plessis, Strauss has laboured through two Tests looking like anything but the inspiring leader his team needed. Also, the scoreboard pressure of both games stopped Coetzee from giving game time to an outstanding black African player, Bongi Mbonambi.
It is about now that we look back at the decision to make Strauss captain for the Ireland series only with fresh insight. Win or lose on Saturday, the real shape of the future of Springbok rugby will only reveal itself in late August when the Rugby Championship begins.
By then the Super Rugby tournament will have run its course, injuries will have been sustained or healed and contracted players will have jetted off to various parts of Europe and Asia.
Coetzee will have had a chance, during the course of a fiercely contested series with Ireland, to sort the sheep from the goats, and in the greater scheme of things the first half in Johannesburg will be a constant reminder that things can only get better.