London - The Springboks left England for Italy on Sunday with the gloves having been taken off by the critics and the calls from back home being unambiguous and clear - the coach’s record just isn’t good enough and his right to continue in his position into 2017 should be questioned.
According to the supersport.com website, Allister Coetzee must feel embattled and under pressure from all different directions after the 37-21 defeat at the hands of an England team that just about everyone agrees was rusty and not on top of their game. Even their coach Eddie Jones said it afterwards: “We’ll be happy with the win against South Africa but we were far from perfect and we need to improve on this performance”.
If Coetzee read the English newspapers on the flight to Florence, it would not have contributed to happy couple of hours in the air. The consensus among the local scribes and the various former internationals that contribute to the rugby analysis read by British people on a Sunday was that the Boks were worse than expected and Stephen Jones of The Sunday Times referred to them as possibly the worst Bok team to come to the British Isles.
Those who remember the team that lost 53-3 under Rudolf Straeuli might debate the point, though it is true that Corne Krige’s side of 14 years ago had the mitigating circumstance of being down to 14 men from the 10th minute.
For the purpose of analysing where Bok rugby is going wrong though it is worth pausing on that 2002 team. South African rugby was going through a wretched playing cycle at the time, and it may be again, but is the quality of the players wearing the green and gold really as bad as it was in 2002? The performances of the Lions in Super Rugby this year would suggest not, and while it is true that some good players have retired since then, let us not forget that the last time the Boks were at Twickenham was 13 months ago when a two point defeat to the All Blacks in a World Cup semifinal was considered a disaster.
There was a lot wrong with Heyneke Meyer’s style of rugby and the blight of the defeat to Japan shouldn’t be forgotten, but that team certainly looked better coached and more organised than the one that fell so easily away once England had put a bit of daylight between the teams just before half-time.
It was impossible too on Saturday not to reflect on the remarkably different directions the two teams that played at Twickenham have travelled since that World Cup. England were severely embarrassed a year ago and were the laughing stock of the rugby world after failing to make the play-off stage of their own World Cup. Since Australian Eddie Jones has taken charge, however, they have won 10 on the trot and should extend that winning sequence to 12 by the end of the autumn international season.
The Boks by contrast, under their new coach, have lost six out of 10, meaning a 40% success rate so far under Coetzee, and none of those four wins were convincing either.
What should be particularly disturbing is that it is invariably clear that the Boks are being out-coached – not just Coetzee, but the entire collective. Once again, there were question marks over the Bok defence, with line-speed being a problem and the insertion of extra men into the attack from a lineout appeared to have the visitors flummoxed when England scored their first try.
The Boks were solid in their first phase play and they troubled the England scrum in the first half, but former England flyhalf Stuart Barnes, writing in The Sunday Times, asked a very good question - with all the tall timber that the Boks had selected at forward, why did they not make more of an attempt to contest the England lineout? England had 15 throw-ins, they comfortably won all 15, and it enabled them to execute their kicking game.
Surely the disruption of the England lineout was a big part of the reason why the Boks would have gone for the selection they did? And it wasn’t as if the loss of Eben Etzebeth to injury would have cost him in that department, as replacement Franco Mostert is one of the best exponents of defensive lineout play in South Africa.
England have an Australian coach and they have become quite Australian in the way they cleverly target the opposition potential weakness. The way their scrumhalf Ben Young twice dummied his way past Pieter-Steph du Toit in creating the second half tries was a case in point. Du Toit may well be an option at blindside flank, but he’d need to play there regularly before he’d be used to the position.
Big Willem Alberts was prominent when the Boks drove in the first half and put in some massive hits, and to be fair to Coetzee, he didn’t have too much option given the injuries to all the opensiders (Heinrich Brussow is not available), but the Boks lacked some needed pace in the back row. They asked more questions on attack early than England may have expected, the long lineout throw to Damian de Allende being an example, but after that they appeared to revert to their Coetzee era reliance on forcing penalties.
It was why once England had drawn ahead it was clear there would be no way back, and it was why it felt like the Boks disintegrated after the points that saw England take a 20-9 lead to the break after they’d been trailing by one just eight minutes earlier.
But in the second half there were some glimpses of positivity for the Boks in the form of what some of the replacements brought onto the field. Ironically, the one man Coetzee was particularly criticised for selecting as a starter in this game, De Allende, produced his best performance of the season, but the arrival of Johan Goosen at flyhalf and then Faf de Klerk alongside him made the players outside them look like they might be the business.
The game had gone by then of course and the Bok tries were only consolation efforts, but Francois Venter showed he has a lot going for him as an attacking player, and perhaps now that the situation can’t possibly get worse for Coetzee, it is time for him to shake off the straight-jacket of his inherent conservatism and be bolder in his selections.
If he is going to play a blindside on the openside flank against Italy let it be the prodigiously promising Jean-Luc du Preez, give Goosen a starting opportunity in his best position and ignore the veteran wings - JP Pietersen was error-ridden at Twickenham - and select Jamba Ulengo. At least then if the Boks lose in the remaining fixtures Coetzee can claim he is building for the future. At the moment he’s going nowhere if not backwards.
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