Johannesburg - On Thursday, two years to the day until the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee cuts a much more relaxed figure than he did three years before the landmark last year.
With the Boks having lost all three of their end-of-year tour Tests in 2016, including their first defeat to Italy Coetzee – buoyed by a record that reads played nine, won five, lost two and drawn two this season – sounded a lot more optimistic about playing against Ireland, France, Italy and Wales.
What’s your idea of a good tour?
You’ve got to look at the mini-battles you’re fighting before you get to the outcome. You have to get a few things right first. Our learnings from the past are that you go over there with a southern hemisphere mind-set, playing in northern hemisphere conditions with northern hemisphere referees. You’ve got to win that battle first by adapting. You’ve also got to understand what the threats are. You can’t just go with a southern hemisphere mentality. There has to be a balance in how you deal with that.
Our kicking game has really been good this year. We’ve had most of our line-outs in opposition territory and that gave us a platform to score tries. So, when those building blocks are in place and the result is not there, the other side is just better on the day. If we’ve done all the hard work and our best is not good enough, I can live with that.
You spoke about the opposition’s threats. What are they?
They are all tough games on tour for us. The Irish will be a different proposition because it’s the beginning of their season. They’ve got certain threats we have to deal with. The first is that the set piece battle is going to be huge. We have to make sure we deal well with the aerial bombardment. Conor Murray is a top scrumhalf, he kicks the ball well and (flyhalf) Jonny Sexton is the same – tactically, they’re good kickers.
Italy will have massive confidence against us. If you look at how they played against England, they had England going for about 68 minutes and that was at Twickenham. These so-called minnows ... there are no minnows any more. Even at a World Cups – and you’ll see in 2019 – there’s no big difference. If you don’t get it right on the day, you can get beaten. It’s a challenge.
We lost to Ireland last year; France at home will be much better and very difficult to beat; obviously Italy; and Wales, we lost three of our four [end-of-year tour] games last year. It’s a tough tour, but we’ve put in the hard work.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from last year?
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is making sure that there’s cohesion in your management team; an understanding that coaching is an integration of philosophies – that it’s not playing defence, defence, defence or attack, attack, attack. It’s all integrated. We have a synergy and the coaches have bought into that.
And the players?
The ‘why’ is the most important thing – you have to get players to understand why they’re here. What is the purpose of playing for the Boks? Is it to get the jersey and to say ‘I’ve been a Springbok’? They play to represent an entire nation and this team understands that more than anything. They know that, if you’re here, you need to flippin’ work hard.
Defence consultant Brendan Venter, who also has a contract with Italy, won’t be available for the game against the Italians. Given that the Boks and the Italians are in the same group at the World Cup, what is the story with him going forward?
He’s got one job as a defence consultant. He’ll always be a consultant as long as I want him as one. I’m happy with the value he’s adding and I know how I want us to play, so that’s why I don’t panic when he’s not with us.
What does the return of Rassie Erasmus mean in terms of his and your roles?
To be honest, I also don’t know how that’s going to work; what his job will entail. I suppose that’s a bridge we’ll have to cross when we get to it, but now my focus is purely on getting the results and making sure this tour is a success.
If you don’t put a name there [Erasmus’ position], I’ll work with anyone who can contribute to the success of South African rugby and has the same beliefs of transforming the Springboks into a unit that represents the entire nation. But there need to be clearly defined roles and responsibilities without any grey areas. My sole job here is to transform the team in the way we play, our team culture and team environment in a way that all South Africans can be proud of. It’s not a wish or a hope, I know it’s an imperative.
The right thing is to make sure that I give opportunities to all players in this country who are good enough to play for South Africa. Our diversity is a strength.