Johannesburg - A potential crisis looms for a Stormers management that will be starting the Vodacom Super Rugby season without the defensive guru, Jacques Nienaber, that masterminded their team strength over the past seven years and with the knowledge that the head coach will be leaving at the end of the competition.
According to the supersport.com website, Japanese based sources have confirmed that the stories linking Allister Coetzee with the Japanese club Kobe Kobelco Steelers are more than just speculation and an expression of interest – the two time Currie Cup winning coach has made a firm commitment to replace Gary Gold as Kobe coach and will link up with his new club once the Super Rugby season is over in July.
Coetzee comes off contract this year. He is understood to have been put out by the recruitment of former Bok and Kenya Sevens coach Paul Treu as a Stormers assistant coach without the management being consulted, and has informed the Stormers hierarchy and his fellow management of his decision.
Although Western Province might be understandably reluctant to confirm or announce Coetzee’s departure at the start of a new Super Rugby season, Coetzee’s decision and commitment to Kobe is an open secret among the coaching fraternity both in South Africa and Japan.
Coetzee, as a two time Currie Cup winner, former World Cup winning national assistant and South Africa’s top black coach, is seen as a candidate to replace Heyneke Meyer as Springbok coach should the national team bomb at the World Cup later this year.
It is understood though that Coetzee has got an undertaking from the South African rugby administration that his national ambitions won’t be affected by him coaching in Japan, and he will have an out clause in his contract there similar to the one that released Gold when he was offered the rugby directorship at the Sharks late last year.
Apart from the apparent unilateral appointment of Treu, who was effectively sacked by SARU two years ago and has no experience of coaching 15-man rugby, other points of contention for Coetzee were understood to be the continued political interference from administrators that are a fact of life in WP rugby, plus the power he lost when Gert Smal was appointed above him as director of rugby.
It is also believed that Coetzee wanted to continue as coach of both the Stormers team in Super Rugby and the WP team in the Currie Cup, but Smal and the Province administration had other ideas.
Smal told reporters a few weeks ago that every effort was being made to keep Coetzee at WP and a concerted effort was made to get him to change his mind but it appears that his decision has been made and he has committed himself to Kobe as Gold’s replacement.
Time will tell what this could mean for the Stormers in the Super Rugby campaign that begins with a tough away derby against the Bulls at Loftus on 14 February. Apart from his role as head coach, Coetzee has to take on the additional role of defence coach as Jacques Nienaber has left to take up a position with the SARU High Performance unit.
Initially Treu was earmarked to be the defensive coach but it's going to take some time to upskill him and senior players, used to the brilliant Nienaber’s astute and organised approach to the task, would be reluctant to work with him before he becomes fully proficient.
If Coetzee is motivated to sound off his Stormers career on a winning note and is prepared to put in the extra hours that the highly demanding defence coach role will require (it is a new field for Coetzee), then maybe there is no cause for alarm, but if Coetzee has one foot and half his brain in Japan, it could prove problematic.
Although the Stormers/WP have committed themselves to a more attacking approach since Smal arrived as director of rugby, their strong defensive record has remained pivotal to recent success, such as in last year’s Currie Cup, where their defensive effort was the key to the many counter-attacking tries they scored.
Greg Hechter, recently appointed as Smal’s second in command and a close friend of Nienaber’s, filled the role of defence coach in the Currie Cup and carried the Nienaber system into the domestic competition last year. However, there are concerns that the further change will move the Stormers too many steps away from where they were defensively and if those misgivings are confirmed it could have dire consequences for them as a team.
Fortunately Duane Vermeulen, the new Stormers captain, has long been the onfield leader of the Stormers defensive system and after working with Nienaber since he was at the Cheetahs as a youngster in 2006, he is regarded by one top coach as the second best defence coach in the world after Nienaber. Much though will depend on how the relationship between Vermeulen, a no nonsense character never afraid to tell coaches when he thinks they are on the wrong path, and the management team develops.
Time will also tell what impact the knowledge that the head coach is leaving, and what that will mean to their own futures, will have on the assistant coaches. If they feel they are not in line to replace Coetzee, and they have doubts about whether or not they will be able to work effectively under a new coach, it could mean they spend the coming months worrying about their own futures and slipping into what former All Black coach John Mitchell would call survival mode.