When he took over coaching the Springboks in 2004, Jake White famously told his callow charges they would win the 2007 World Cup in their first team meeting.
Given that the Boks had barely recovered from their worst World Cup and the Kamp Staaldraad fiasco the year before, White’s optimism suggested he was a man who needed to have his brain examined.
Ever a glass is half-full man, White had calculated that the Boks couldn’t sink any lower and that his victorious 2002 SA Under-21 side could form the core of the team, as long as they racked up at least 30 caps between said meeting and the World Cup.
Simply put, in a time of crisis, there was a clear, if starry-eyed, plan of action.
There was no Staaldraad to recover from when Allister Coetzee took over this year, but the team’s first defeats to Argentina and Japan last year, and the prehistoric rugby played at the World Cup, meant he too had a job on his hands.
Yet the response by all involved in Bok rugby has been the kind of muddled thinking that has shown itself in decisions almost exclusively based on compromise.
SA Rugby’s failure to advertise the post, while dressed up as head-hunting, ended up suggesting that maybe the Bok coaching job is no longer a top appointment. And if the idea was to keep it local, Coetzee was definitely the most qualified. But he was hired so late that it may have disadvantaged him.
Then he was essentially saddled with someone else’s support staff (forwards coach Matt Proudfoot is basically the only person Coetzee could hire as his assistant). Also, by taking so long to replace Rassie Erasmus means the embattled Coetzee does not have another wise head to bounce ideas off.
That said, Coetzee himself has not helped himself with some of the decisions he’s made.
If he knew that Adriaan Strauss would retire from international rugby at the end of the season, why appoint him as captain? And with Strauss having belatedly made the announcement, probably because his place in the team was in doubt, why pick him as captain for yesterday’s game against Australia?
This is the kind of decision-making that has rendered the building of a competitive team for the 2019 World Cup an afterthought.
Given how South Africa is bleeding talent to Japan and Europe, everyone needs to be mature enough to accept the inconsistent results as long as the players who will make South Africa competitive in three years’ time are identified and backed.
But South African fans are fed a steady diet of hubris, so they make unreasonable demands, such as firing the coach every time the Boks lose.
This means Coetzee is compromised in his selections. If he picks his best XV, his bench is unlikely to make an impact, so players such as Jaco Kriel and Pieter-Steph du Toit are benched when they should be starting.
But just as we accept that the bench should brim with attacking intent, he then picks Morné Steyn, the original non-attacking flyhalf, as backup to the normally electric Elton Jantjies.
It’s almost as if Coetzee has told himself he needs to see out this year with minimal damage before he starts building a team for the World Cup next season.
It took the All Blacks three defeats by the Springboks in 2009 to decide they needed to overhaul their systems, a decision that brought an unbelievable winning streak and back-to-back World Cup wins.
If recent results have shown anything, it is that our tried and trusted methods can no longer be relied on to bring consistent results, which means it’s time to make ruthless decisions about our systems.