Honest reflection and change is not to be confused with panic when it comes to the selection of the Springboks squad for the final two home matches of the Rugby Championship.
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has said there will not be wholesale changes to the side humiliated 57-0. Assistant coach and defence specialist Brendan Venter has urged the rugby public to keep the faith.
Venter, on his Twitter feed, described the defeat as a ‘one-off’ in the context of the Springboks’ 2017 season. He wrote the All Blacks had given the Springboks a rugby lesson but was optimistic the Boks could redress the problems in the return home matches against Australia (in Bloemfontein) and the All Blacks (in Cape Town).
Coetzee praised his players for their courage and commitment. He said one match would not define the Springboks’ season. He was buoyant in demeanour, even though his psyche would have been bashed.
Yet, it was no ‘one-off’ because in 2016 there had been another case of the Springboks conceding 57 points against the All Blacks.
The Springboks will be defined for another year by what happened in Albany; just like they were defined by what happened in the 57-15 defeat in Durban in 2016.
The best team in the world has scored 23 tries and conceded one in the last three Tests against the Springboks. That is the measurement of the Springboks, regardless of whether the coaching staff acknowledges this reality.
Coetzee, as he did post Durban, has publicly not reflected on the horror of Albany. I trust he will be more brutal within the team environment when assessing how best to restore a season that offered hope before the Albany annihilation.
Coetzee, in defence of his Boks, dismissed criticism by declaring his Boks have not become a bad team with one result. The counter is that they were never quite as good as the hype following the comfortable wins against France and Argentina, two nations ranked eighth and 10 respectively.
I got it wrong in thinking that improving on 2016 meant the gap had been closed on the world’s best team, the All Blacks. I was fooled by the Springboks’ superiority against inferior opposition. I got it wrong in trumpeting them as a team good enough to run the All Blacks close.
The Springboks, if serious about consistency in performance and results against the very best, can’t be excused embarrassing defeats on the basis of inexperience.
The All Blacks, in the last 12 months, have introduced 25 new players to Test rugby. Only five players who started the 2015 World Cup final survive in their best run on XV. The changes in the All Blacks from last season’s high in Durban were excessive. Only five of that starting XV started in Albany.
The All Blacks cull when appropriate. There isn’t a knee-jerk reaction but if a player is not performing, he goes. Think of Julian Savea. He has scored 46 tries in 54 Tests but historical form was irrelevant when weighted against the 2017 season form of newcomer Rieko Ioane. And the player with red-hot form has rewarded the selections.
Coetzee, all season, has refused to tamper with his match day squads. He said a player had to play himself out of the match day 23. Coetzee learned nothing in victory and if he refuses to change for the home Tests he would have learned nothing in defeat.
Coetzee was adamant after the 57-15 Durban debacle that the best players were on the field. Clearly they weren’t because only two survived to start in Albany.
The Bok coach, in defending his selections, uttered the same nonsense when the Boks lost to Wales at the end of 2016. Only a handful of those players have played for the Springboks in 2017.
Denial will ultimately be the death of Coetzee as a Springbok coach; astute selection is his only saviour.
The reality of Albany is that so many in the match day 23 were lacking in quality and Test presence when the All Blacks challenged the pedigree of those players deemed the best in South Africa.
The same players won’t get a different result. To think they can is just madness.
The same players would also struggle against England and Ireland away from home, which means that realistically the Boks are closer to five than three in the pecking order. It’s an improvement on the low of seventh at the end of 2016, but it’s still not good enough for a rugby nation traditionally a world top three.
South Africa’s domestic talent isn’t good enough to command exclusivity to Test selection. There are better South African players based overseas in many positions. It’s about identifying the balance and the areas in which there can be no compromise.
The awful truth of Albany is that it can only be addressed in a year’s time when the Springboks again travel to New Zealand. Justifiably, there will be a question mark, whatever the results in the interim.
Coetzee’s 2017 Springbok players enjoyed the ideal preparation in a what they have said has been the best ever Springbok environment. To then get zero and concede 57 tells you they aren’t good enough.
Sadly, it needed the embarrassment of Albany to show the back three, as a collective, not good enough. The analysis of their individual performance is as damning.
Equally the halfback starting combination has never worked. The back row mix was out of balance and the tight five depth was also exposed as inadequate.
To acknowledge this and make the changes would inspire confidence and calm. For Coetzee to resist the obvious in selection will result in ridicule from which there may never be recovery, let alone redemption.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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