Cape Town – Allister Coetzee’s annus horribilis as Springbok
coach so far now runs the considerable risk of only worsening in three November
Tests in the northern hemisphere.
It’s not even as though the dazed, dishevelled Boks have the
luxury of building up gradually on tour to the “big ‘un” against England at
Twickenham: Eddie Jones’s resurgent, unbeaten charges and Six Nations champions
are first up on November 12, even if there is a non-Test limb-loosener against
the Barbarians a week earlier.
The Boks have had the English measure at Twickers in recent
years, winning the last five bilateral clashes at the hallowed venue, but after
the shameful 57-15 capitulation to New Zealand at Kings Park on Saturday and
bleak year as a whole for South Africa to this point, who would confidently
lavish money on a sixth Bok London triumph on the trot?
Overwhelming common sense suggests England will stop their
relative Bok “rot” … and frankly, current disarray in the Bok playing style and
tottering confidence levels even suggests Italy and Wales (the latter
especially) will feel they have a puncher’s chance against this retreating
The Boks have won all 12 prior meetings against the Italians
and never truly been run close even on away soil, so gloomier Bok supporters
may well be fearing already that another of those unwanted “firsts” – a la Boks
against Japan last year – is potentially in the post.
There are some less forgiving sports – like soccer – where
certain coaches would already not have survived the sort of sequence of
performances witnessed on Coetzee’s watch in 2016, and the 0-9 try count in
Durban is unusually damning, that’s for sure.
So it is probably not unrealistic to suggest that “Toetie” and
his shaky lieutenants – admittedly some of them ill-advisedly not of his own
choosing -- could be fighting for their very survival in Europe, never an ideal
place to be scrapping under such circumstances at season’s end as fatigue and
wear-and-tear takes some hold in the travelling ranks anyway.
Where I believe Coetzee has gone most fatally astray is in
quite lamentably not assembling the correct personnel for the type of game he
wishes to play on specific occasions.
When he resorted back to metronomic place-kicker Morne Steyn
as his flyhalf recently, for example, he really needed to match that blatant
conservatism by picking men around the seasoned pivot -- both forwards and
backs -- geared to carry out a broadly pragmatic formula.
In the past, like him or not, Steyn has sometimes flourished
and, indeed, helped the Boks grind out Test victories by enjoying in front of
him a gnarly, heavyweight, mauling pack capable of keeping him on the front
foot, plus several outside backs of notably robust physical proportions who
properly commit defenders (sometimes more than just one) to stopping them.
For all their rightly-touted artistry and near-arrogance on
attack at Kings Park, the All Blacks were allowed to flourish in that manner in
no small measure because they glaringly, as a key starting point, outmuscled the
Boks – almost like never before -- in tackle situations and at breakdowns.
If you don’t believe me, watch the video nasty again. The
Boks were bullied in areas they would previously always have backed themselves
to dominate or at least level-peg in.
That’s one good reason, even if there were others, why the
All Blacks so vastly bossed possession and territory against a Bok side they
increasingly knackered by pushing them onto the retreat; hence the late-game
real implosion by the hosts.
The New Zealanders may well have revelled in the fact that
the Boks started this Test with at least two loose forwards, Oupa Mohoje and
Warren Whiteley, clearly more geared for “run-around” stuff than genuine
mongrel and winning small, patient yards at close quarters.
When they get to the chilly “north” soon, be sure that the
Boks will not be greeted by hard and fast pitches and balmy weather, and games
are far likelier to be decided on percentages and slow grind than
Whether it’s up your particular alley or not, South Africa
may need the ballast of Willem Alberts at No 7 more than is realised by some,
and if there is the slightest chance that hard man Duane Vermeulen may be available
again after his knee surgery for possible duty as eighthman (or blind-side
flank) then the opportunity should be grabbed by Coetzee with both hands.
Toulon-based Vermeulen was supposedly going to be out of
top-flight action for “a few weeks” when he went under the knife in mid-August.
It may also be a tour where Pieter-Steph du Toit’s versatile
options could be gainfully deployed outside the tight five, with men like
Mohoje and Whiteley -- who undoubtedly have their attributes, don’t get me
wrong -- arguably better geared to operating nearer the closing end of matches.
At the risk that I am going to be accused of being additionally
Flintstone-esque, the Boks are also presently putting out backlines under
Coetzee marked by a rare shortage of collective height and muscle.
Yes, New Zealand and Australia aren’t shy to field some gifted
“little guys” amidst their three-quarters, but that is primarily because right
around them are Naholos, Saveas, Fekitoas, Kerevis and Folaus – all of them
players combining skills with suitable brute power and, in most instances,
healthy height as well.
Coetzee spoke after the Kings Park carnage of his
disappointment in “our aerial skills not being what they should be” … technical
aspects aside, it will be mightily difficult for the Boks to get that right as
long as they persevere with a coterie of too collectively small backs, easily
brushed off in front-on combat.
In that regard, the claims of vastly experienced, 106kg and
1.90m wing JP Pietersen must be revisited in a hurry – he has reportedly fitted
in well so far at Leicester Tigers, and is right in tune with European
conditions – whilst the fan club of stocky but also wily Rohan Janse van
Rensburg of the domestic Lions are also fully entitled to scream for his Bok
inclusion with mounting urgency.
Swashbuckling new methods aren’t going to come to the fore
by South Africa on the end-of-year tour, and the environment there wouldn’t aid
Coetzee just needs to bank some wins in a hurry.
I’m afraid it will – or should – mean jettisoning certain
lightweights, across the park.
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on Twitter: @RobHouwing