Cape Town – It’s been a rougher ride thus far than Springbok
coach Allister Coetzee would have budgeted for when he took over the post
earlier this year.
The cold truth is that if his charges – as is so widely
anticipated – get beaten, and quite possibly badly, by New Zealand in
Christchurch on Saturday, his victory record after seven matches at the helm
would slump to just under 43 percent (three out of seven).
Given the gormlessness and uninspiring feel of this Bok side
in so many areas, Coetzee is understandably under bombardment from pundits and
public back home, especially following their latest setback against a similarly
tepid Australian outfit.
Yet even as a substantial amount of the dissent is
warranted, and he has plenty to answer for already, there are some sound
reasons for not heaping blame too wholly at his own door.
I still believe, personally, that “Toetie” is a better,
wiser coach than the green-and-gold evidence of the past few weeks and months
His Stormers teams over several seasons, for example, won
many more matches than they lost, including earning SA conference supremacy for
three of the five seasons in which he held the reins under that one-pool system
for the country’s franchises.
They were also traditionally very difficult to break down,
seldom losing heavily when they did suffer setbacks -- even if there was also
substantial, lasting discontent among the Newlands faithful over their
conservative, so often “grind things out” battle-plan.
The one thing you can at least say about his early matches
in charge of the national team, is that they haven’t yet experienced a genuine
thumping a la Rudolf Straeuli or even certain phases of the Jake White era –
though that, alas, may well change this weekend.
It is if the Boks are taken to the cleaners in Christchurch
that Coetzee will pretty much walk into virgin, particularly uncomfortable
terrain for him.
Let’s be clear: I have reservations, some of them fairly
deep, about the likelihood that he will, eventually, forge a new bright,
strongly identity-driven and notably consistent winning way for the Boks.
But I am also a long way from ready to join the inevitable,
emotional “fire him, he’s clearly useless” lobby.
That school fails lamentably to take into account the extent
to which many of the players he has shown solid – to the point of
extraordinary, in some cases – faith in since early June have instead let him
A quick reminder: many of us in scribe/observer circles had
only limited bones to pick (and who ever concurs fully over a Bok team or squad?)
with Coetzee’s selections for the Ireland series, as he struck what seemed a
deft enough balance between keeping some necessary, residual experience from
the Heyneke Meyer period and rewarding Super Rugby 2016 form – this he did
gradually by filtering in more and more figures from the ranks of the losing
He has kept changes to a relative minimum, even as certain
teething issues took swift hold, and in broadest terms I believe that is the
hallmark of a smart coach, unwilling to resort too rapidly to extreme, panicked
measures which do little to aid stability or gees. It’s a statement of his man-management -- one area he’s
always been renowned for in the first-class landscape.
I also quietly admire him for the amount of time (five
starts on the trot) he has given Elton Jantjies, a complex mix of brilliant and
fragile, to settle into the flyhalf berth -- even as I fancy that deep down, he
does not consider the left-footed pivot his ideal type for the channel.
If I have a significant beef with Coetzee’s approach, it is
that he has been patient with some glaringly misfiring individuals for a fatal game
or two too long now; too averse to making really major, hard decisions in
selection terms for restorative purposes.
But we also cannot summarily dismiss as unimportant the fact
that he took over as Bok coach at unusually short notice – his appointment was
announced in mid-April, a probably unprecedented mere seven weeks or
thereabouts before he had to oversee his first Test match.
Taking over a support staff primarily pre-appointed,
something that might not happen in many other frontline rugby countries, would
hardly have helped his quest to rapidly assert himself and execute his plans
Then there is a rather vast pool of mostly injured-related,
current side-lined figures to weigh up, a phenomenon affecting both
established, proven internationals and some younger players who might feasibly
have come into the reckoning during 2016.
Such names include Handre Pollard, Pat Lambie (both of them
orthodox, much-needed “generals” at No 10), Duane Vermeulen, Frans Malherbe,
Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Ruan Combrinck, Marcell Coetzee, and the Bulls’ exciting,
21-year-old former SA under-20 fullback Warrick Gelant.
Don’t underestimate the improved oomph some of these men could
bring to a presently tentative, spooked Bok side.
Coetzee also isn’t personally on the park (and left only to
pull his remaining, greying hair out) when, for instance, his supposedly
ball-carrying blindside flank spills an elementary ball forward under only
limited pressure, or his various kickers – against his wishes, he swears –
thump the ball up, ill-advisedly and repeatedly, onto that aerial maestro
The portents don’t look too good at this point, I give you
that, but Coetzee still deserves an infinitely more reasonable amount of time
than six or seven Test matches to put his desired stamp on things.
He is coaching at a vulnerable juncture in Bok history. Sad
truth be told, there is an unusually glaring limit on quality playing material
available to him at present.
Things should improve quite considerably in that respect
That is when, more acceptably bedded down in a demanding
role, we can and should more vigorously judge him.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing