Rugby Championship

Bok Euro tour: Just more misery?

2016-10-09 15:11
Allister Coetzee (Getty)

Cape Town – Allister Coetzee’s annus horribilis as Springbok coach so far now runs the considerable risk of only worsening in three November Tests in the northern hemisphere.

It’s not even as though the dazed, dishevelled Boks have the luxury of building up gradually on tour to the “big ‘un” against England at Twickenham: Eddie Jones’s resurgent, unbeaten charges and Six Nations champions are first up on November 12, even if there is a non-Test limb-loosener against the Barbarians a week earlier.

The Boks have had the English measure at Twickers in recent years, winning the last five bilateral clashes at the hallowed venue, but after the shameful 57-15 capitulation to New Zealand at Kings Park on Saturday and bleak year as a whole for South Africa to this point, who would confidently lavish money on a sixth Bok London triumph on the trot?

Overwhelming common sense suggests England will stop their relative Bok “rot” … and frankly, current disarray in the Bok playing style and tottering confidence levels even suggests Italy and Wales (the latter especially) will feel they have a puncher’s chance against this retreating former superpower.

The Boks have won all 12 prior meetings against the Italians and never truly been run close even on away soil, so gloomier Bok supporters may well be fearing already that another of those unwanted “firsts” – a la Boks against Japan last year – is potentially in the post.

There are some less forgiving sports – like soccer – where certain coaches would already not have survived the sort of sequence of performances witnessed on Coetzee’s watch in 2016, and the 0-9 try count in Durban is unusually damning, that’s for sure.

So it is probably not unrealistic to suggest that “Toetie” and his shaky lieutenants – admittedly some of them ill-advisedly not of his own choosing -- could be fighting for their very survival in Europe, never an ideal place to be scrapping under such circumstances at season’s end as fatigue and wear-and-tear takes some hold in the travelling ranks anyway.

Where I believe Coetzee has gone most fatally astray is in quite lamentably not assembling the correct personnel for the type of game he wishes to play on specific occasions.

When he resorted back to metronomic place-kicker Morne Steyn as his flyhalf recently, for example, he really needed to match that blatant conservatism by picking men around the seasoned pivot -- both forwards and backs -- geared to carry out a broadly pragmatic formula.

In the past, like him or not, Steyn has sometimes flourished and, indeed, helped the Boks grind out Test victories by enjoying in front of him a gnarly, heavyweight, mauling pack capable of keeping him on the front foot, plus several outside backs of notably robust physical proportions who properly commit defenders (sometimes more than just one) to stopping them.

For all their rightly-touted artistry and near-arrogance on attack at Kings Park, the All Blacks were allowed to flourish in that manner in no small measure because they glaringly, as a key starting point, outmuscled the Boks – almost like never before -- in tackle situations and at breakdowns.

If you don’t believe me, watch the video nasty again. The Boks were bullied in areas they would previously always have backed themselves to dominate or at least level-peg in.

That’s one good reason, even if there were others, why the All Blacks so vastly bossed possession and territory against a Bok side they increasingly knackered by pushing them onto the retreat; hence the late-game real implosion by the hosts.

The New Zealanders may well have revelled in the fact that the Boks started this Test with at least two loose forwards, Oupa Mohoje and Warren Whiteley, clearly more geared for “run-around” stuff than genuine mongrel and winning small, patient yards at close quarters.

When they get to the chilly “north” soon, be sure that the Boks will not be greeted by hard and fast pitches and balmy weather, and games are far likelier to be decided on percentages and slow grind than razzle-dazzle.

Whether it’s up your particular alley or not, South Africa may need the ballast of Willem Alberts at No 7 more than is realised by some, and if there is the slightest chance that hard man Duane Vermeulen may be available again after his knee surgery for possible duty as eighthman (or blind-side flank) then the opportunity should be grabbed by Coetzee with both hands.

Toulon-based Vermeulen was supposedly going to be out of top-flight action for “a few weeks” when he went under the knife in mid-August.

It may also be a tour where Pieter-Steph du Toit’s versatile options could be gainfully deployed outside the tight five, with men like Mohoje and Whiteley -- who undoubtedly have their attributes, don’t get me wrong -- arguably better geared to operating nearer the closing end of matches.

At the risk that I am going to be accused of being additionally Flintstone-esque, the Boks are also presently putting out backlines under Coetzee marked by a rare shortage of collective height and muscle.

Yes, New Zealand and Australia aren’t shy to field some gifted “little guys” amidst their three-quarters, but that is primarily because right around them are Naholos, Saveas, Fekitoas, Kerevis and Folaus – all of them players combining skills with suitable brute power and, in most instances, healthy height as well. 

Coetzee spoke after the Kings Park carnage of his disappointment in “our aerial skills not being what they should be” … technical aspects aside, it will be mightily difficult for the Boks to get that right as long as they persevere with a coterie of too collectively small backs, easily brushed off in front-on combat.

In that regard, the claims of vastly experienced, 106kg and 1.90m wing JP Pietersen must be revisited in a hurry – he has reportedly fitted in well so far at Leicester Tigers, and is right in tune with European conditions – whilst the fan club of stocky but also wily Rohan Janse van Rensburg of the domestic Lions are also fully entitled to scream for his Bok inclusion with mounting urgency.

Swashbuckling new methods aren’t going to come to the fore by South Africa on the end-of-year tour, and the environment there wouldn’t aid that anyway.

Coetzee just needs to bank some wins in a hurry.

I’m afraid it will – or should – mean jettisoning certain lightweights, across the park.  

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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