Johannesburg - Allister Coetzee did not say goodbye to his career as DHL Stormers coach with a Vodacom Super Rugby trophy to go with his three conference and two Currie Cup titles, but he did leave with something he will cherish almost as much – Eben Etzebeth’s Springbok jersey.
According to supersport.com,coaches often say that what they work for is not trophies but the respect, support and loyalty of their players, and it was the men who serve under them say about them and feel for them that defines them. As Coetzee said goodbye to the Cape media with his exit press conference, he sang from that hymn sheet.
“The goodbyes and the farewells to the players were quite emotional, and it reminded me that you are not defined as a coach by losing in the quarterfinals,” said Coetzee.
“What the management and players had to say to me in our farewell meeting was very humbling. The players thanked me for what I have done, and then I knew ‘I have done my job, I can be happy’. At the end of the day, that is what defines you as a coach. The big thing for me is that in eight years with this union, I have never lost a changeroom.
“A player like Eben Etzebeth handing me his Springbok No 4 jersey as a thank you for what I have done for him, that was special. I know the trophies you win define success, and I do have a few of those in the cabinet, but the biggest thing for me was the rapport and the relationship I had with the players. That was for keeps.”
There will of course be mixed reaction to Coetzee as he departs the Cape rugby scene to take up his new life as coach of the Kobelco Steelers in Japan. Those who remember what preceded Coetzee, which was a dark period where the Stormers were considered to have done well if they just remained in the Super Rugby hunt until Easter and Western Province struggled to make the Currie Cup semifinals, will remember him as a coach who made the premier Cape team competitive again.
Those who are too young to know, who have poor memories or otherwise are caught up in the past and the arrogance that thrives in memories of WP’s golden age in the 1980s, and who assume for reasons that are difficult to fathom that Province should be “the Manchester United of rugby”, will see him as a failure.
What can’t be taken away from Coetzee though are the facts – while some might think it wasn’t enough, three consecutive places in the top two and home semifinals did represent a quantum step forward from what preceded him. In 15 years of trying before Coetzee became coach in 2010, the Stormers had made the play-offs twice. Just twice.
And while those who want to bash him are quick to point out that the Stormers came seventh on the overall log this year if you just tally up the log points earned, that ignores detail such as that the Stormers took a second string team to Durban for the final ‘dead rubber’ game. Had they won that match, which they may well have done at full strength, they would have finished with the fourth highest haul of log points and a similar number to what the Sharks managed in winning the South African conference last year.
Criticising the Stormers for not going all the way this year is also disingenuous and displays a stunning lack of perspective. Coetzee is quite right when he points out that those who now number among his critics never gave his team a chance of even winning the conference this year. In that sense, with a young team in tow and not a team of stars, they exceeded expectations.
And that could also have been said about the teams that made the semifinals between 2010 and 2012. Lest it be forgotten, during those years the Stormers were often criticised for their lack of a potent tight five, with the scrum in particular appearing to struggle perennially. And yet, for all that, they somehow kept ending higher on the log than teams with stronger scrums and more international players.
There seems to be a wave of feeling currently among Sharks supporters that their union made a big mistake in offloading John Plumtree as coach, and they may have a point, but if you compare his record with that of Coetzee’s, the WP mentor of the past few years doesn’t have to stand back – they both won two Currie Cup trophies, Plumtree made the Super Rugby final as head coach once as did Coetzee, but Coetzee won the conference trophy twice whereas Plumtree didn’t.
That’s not to denigrate Plumtree, for the point really is that Plumtree, who was being head-hunted by WP to succeed Coetzee as head coach a few weeks ago, is rightly recognised as an excellent coach, but Coetzee’s record isn’t inferior to his.
That there is debate whether Coetzee would have been able to take the Stormers to the next level is right, and the systems that Rassie Erasmus put into place did play a massive part in the greater competiveness of the Cape teams since 2008. But he did also bring through several young players, one of those being Etzebeth, and probably boasted a better record in backing youth than several other top South African coaches. His transformation record is also beyond reproach.
As with the players who have played for him, if you talk to Coetzee’s peers in the coaching fraternity there is a lot of respect, and it wouldn’t be off the wall to suggest that we may not have seen the last of Coetzee in South Africa. Those who argue against his credentials to be the next Bok coach on the basis that he never won Super Rugby need to tally up the number of currently active South African coaches who have, and then refer to who they are. Heyneke Meyer is the current Bok coach, Frans Ludeke fed off his systems at the Bulls and has now been dispensed with. If you rule out the World Cup winner, Jake White, and acknowledge that Nick Mallett just doesn't want to be a coach anymore, who else is there who can do the job?
For Coetzee’s part, the role that White suggested he take up before Peter de Villiers was appointed as his successor is still in his sights.
“Going to Japan doesn’t mean it is the end of me in South Africa,” he said. “Definitely not.”