Coetzee can only hope for a rebirth

The set-up of the international season means that every June in the southern hemisphere marks a rebirth. No Tests have been played in six months and, in New Zealand, the stellar performances of their Super Rugby teams will mean little if the All Blacks lose the Test series against the British and Irish Lions.

By way of contrast, in South Africa, a host of poor Super Rugby games from all teams other than the Lions will be ameliorated somewhat by a successful series against France.

As it happens, there have been several times down the years when a French series has meant a rebirth of sorts. In the post-isolation period, it was France who hosted the first Springbok tour at the end of 1992, and the sides met for two further Tests six months later in South Africa.

It was a rude awakening for the Boks, camouflaged somewhat by a 20-15 victory in Lyon in their first overseas Test since September 1981. A week later in Paris, they were humbled 29-16 and the following Saturday, across the channel, England beat the Boks 33-16. At the post-match dinner, the assembled tourists were shocked to discover from his speech, that their captain, Naas Botha, had chosen that moment to retire from international rugby.

Botha’s decision and their defeats in the previous two Tests, forced two things — a change of coach and a change of captain.

John Williams of the Blue Bulls had taken the team overseas but, by the time France arrived in June 1993, Gerrie Sonnekus had been appointed and discarded and Ian McIntosh had been belatedly installed as Springbok coach.

McIntosh was the obvious choice, an innovative modernist, a free thinker, and the man who had propelled Natal from the B section to Currie Cup champions in five heady seasons. But he was not a former Springbok and, in those far-off days, that meant way more to the grandees of the South African Rugby Football Union (as Saru was known back then) than his fitness or otherwise for the job.

And now we come up to date, because among the first things that McIntosh did as coach was to install the Lions captain as the Springbok captain, a man many regarded as too small and not the best in his position — a certain Francois Pienaar.

Allister Coetzee has just appointed Warren Whiteley for the French series. It remains to be seen whether his play over the coming three Test series will be enough to silence the critics.

Coetzee survives in the job by the skin of his teeth, following a dire first season in charge in 2016. His employers have been generous enough to write it off as an aberration, but patience at the top is wafer- thin right now. What he could really do with is a dominant performance in Pretoria this weekend but it is unlikely to manifest.

There are too many question marks about the squad. Irrespective of the units sent out at Loftus, Coetzee does not know his best combinations in any area of the park. The announcement of his selection on Thursday was an exercise in kite flying.

The back row in particular is compromised, with the withdrawal of Duane Vermeulen from the series. He is alleged to have picked up a shoulder injury in the French Top 14 final on Sunday, but he has been struggling with the same injury since before the 2015 World Cup.

It might have been wise, upon learning of Vermeulen’s status, to have called up Lions flanker Kwagga Smith, another odd omission from the original squad. If, as seems clear, Coetzee has opted to nail his colours to the red and white of the Lions, then Smith has been one of their key performers all year. It seems he is tainted by the whiff of being a “Sevens player”, another throwback to a less enlightened time.

The other area of major concern is at centre, where what looked like being Coetzee’s first-choice pair — Damian de Allende and Lionel Mapoe — are both injured.

In the case of De Allende it is no great loss, for the Stormer has only recently returned from long-term injury and looks far from regaining the form of two years ago. Mapoe, lest we forget, was a late inclusion in the side anyway, following the injury to Lukhanyo Am.

It would appear that the omission from the squad of both Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen means a new era of wings is upon us. In which case it beggars belief that the underperforming Raymond Rhule of the Cheetahs could ever have been preferred in the squad to the Blitzbok maestro Seabelo Senatla. There’s that Sevens whiff again.

Even so, home advantage and the late arrival on the Highveld of a relatively inexperienced France team should tilt the scales in favour of the home side, at least for this first Test. After that, everything is up for grabs, for an uncompetitive French side has never visited these shores.

The 1993 vintage won the two Test series by the slenderest possible margin — one point. The first Test in Durban was a 20-20 draw and the tourists won the Ellis Park decider 18-17. Ed Morrison, an Englishman from Bristol, was the referee in that game and in a Sandton bar, many hours after the final whistle had blown, he told me: “At one of the scrums, Tiaan Strauss, pulled his head out from somebody’s backside and said, ‘ ’ere, ref, it’s a good game, ain’t it?’ ”

And it was. Let’s hope that Loftus can come up with something equally entertaining this week.

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