Allister Coetzee is a decent man who protects his players wherever possible. In the two weeks that have passed since New Zealand beat South Africa 57-0, the Springbok coach has been in confessional mode. The problem with explaining yourself, however, is that once you start it’s hard to know when to stop. Cans of worms, once opened, cannot be closed.
So it is one thing to say to the press about Francois Hougaard: “Not playing regularly at nine has not helped him with his technical ability at scrumhalf at Test match level.” It is quite another to explain why, in that case, Hougaard was recalled in the first place. This is not new information; the Bulls moved him to the wing seven years ago because his passing game, in particular, was not accurate enough at provincial level, never mind Test level.
It is no secret that South Africa is not blessed with great depth at scrumhalf right now. Coetzee’s predecessor, Heyneke Meyer, persuaded Fourie du Preez to come out of retirement for the 2015 World Cup precisely for that reason. If a former national scrumhalf now campaigning in Europe needed to be brought into the squad now, that player should have been Ruan Pienaar.
Now that Hougaard has been sent back to Worcester, Coetzee has replaced him with Louis Schreuder, a player the coach learned to trust during his long tenure at the Stormers. It is, sadly, the equivalent of compounding a felony. Schreuder is one of those players who has been around long enough for everyone to conclude he is not Test material.
It may be argued by Schreuder’s defenders that exactly the same could be said for Ross Cronjé and that, given the same opportunities, he will thrive. But Cronjé comes with one thing that Schreuder does not: the key to the psychological wellbeing of Elton Jantjies.
Another man who contributes in that regard is Ruan Combrinck, and it is an enduring mystery quite why he has not featured in the Springbok squad this season after, arguably, being their best player in 2016. Coetzee’s response was to tell the media that Combrinck had not had enough game time since recovering from injury.
“At this point in time after Super Rugby, Ruan hasn’t played a lot of rugby and he hasn’t started much [in Japan]. It makes it difficult, and I burned my fingers last year when we had players coming in from France, and we spoke a lot about their conditioning and fitness levels,” he said.
And yet Handré Pollard is part of the squad, having played almost no rugby at all for the past two years. Coetzee’s response was: “The difference is that I’ve had Handré here with the coaches, training with us and putting in the extra sessions. He’s up to speed with our game plan and where we want to go as a team.”
What’s missing, of course, is game time. Pollard is one of several squad members who have been training with the national side instead of playing for their provinces. After the debacle in New Zealand, Coetzee saw fit to release a number of them to play in last weekend’s Currie Cup matches — but Bulls coach John Mitchell said thanks, but no thanks.
Ironically, Mitchell was forced to bring Pollard on to the bench against the Sharks after his young fullback, Manie Libbok, was rushed to hospital to have his appendix removed. In a match the Bulls had to win to stay in the competition, Pollard came on with half an hour to go.
Conditions could not have been worse, with Durban being battered by torrential rain and the Bulls being forced to play catch-up. Unsurprisingly, Pollard looked short of a gallop. The moral of this story is that the instinctive things players learn from regular competition cannot be honed on the training field.
If anyone should have fallen on their sword after the Albany defeat, it was Raymond Rhule. He earned the unwanted nickname of “The Matador” as he ushered All Black players through in the course of missing nine tackles. Yet Coetzee stood up for his man, saying: “I’m not a coach who will look at one poor performance and chuck someone away.”
On Tuesday, however, he did exactly that, sending Rhule back to the Cheetahs for Pro14 duty. At the same time, he released two Sharks players — S’bu Nkosi and Dan du Preez — who should be part of his long-term strategy. Nkosi spent all of two days with the squad, apparently for observation.
All of the above are examples of muddled thinking — or, as some have dubbed it, the madness of the Springbok coach. Eventually, among those in positions open to public scrutiny, the endless need to prove yourself right and everyone else wrong manifests. It was inevitable that Coetzee would lose his way after the New Zealand defeat, but he needs to pull himself together quickly.
A win against Australia this week is of great importance, if only to prove that measuring a team — any team — against the All Blacks is a fruitless exercise. The 23-23 draw against the Wallabies in Perth must be parlayed into a solid home win, and then we can all go back to fretting about how bad the defeat in Cape Town might be next Saturday.