Cape Town – What is the most worrying aspect about the 2016 Springbok team thus far?
Many would say the lack of a clear-cut game-plan; the fact that Allister Coetzee’s charges are stuck in an apparent “twixt and between” sort of mode, featuring certain quite alarming weaknesses and suspiciously few discernible strengths.
A personal main concern is the absence in seven matches – three against Ireland, four in the Rugby Championship – of any truly stirring single performance yet.
Think about it: the Boks had to grimly eke out their desperately tight series win over the notably under-strength Irish from 1-0 down, whilst their lone victory in the annual southern hemisphere competition up to now required a desperate scramble in the final 10 minutes at Mbombela to register a dramatic, get-off-the-hook triumph over Argentina.
Not once, I would argue (and probably earn widespread agreement?) have they produced the sort of 80 minutes leaving you warmly believing they are on a path back to at least second place in the rugby world behind the continually pace-setting All Blacks.
Regression, if anything, is eclipsing progress at this point.
Inevitably, Coetzee finds himself under the cosh in media and public terms, especially as selection has also been a deeply vexing issue.
Amidst the general climate of turbulence, however, the one charge extremely difficult to nail on the head coach’s post box is evidence – yet -- of proper panic on his part.
Instead, he has been astoundingly loyal to a particular squad of players since the outset of the Irish series, even if there have been certain tweaks and often injury-enforced alterations along the way.
I still maintain that it is, in many respects, an encouraging sign of a good, suitably sober and measured coach … and “Toetie” has almost always been that at first-class level.
He is traditionally not one to shake the bag too violently in periods of leanness; many coaches who do that only deepen the angst and instability into something rather closer to outright chaos.
And usually in the past – think his largely competitive Stormers tenure – his charges have responded to steady votes of confidence after a few hiccups by clambering pretty successfully back on the horse, as it were, in the results column.
But there is also a mounting case for saying that Coetzee has been too charitable for too long in this start-out phase of his Bok job, stubbornly bypassing solid franchise/provincial form by certain players on the outside of his core squad – think someone like the Lions midfield stick of dynamite Rohan Janse van Rensburg – in favour of keeping to individuals who deliver mediocrity, at best, week after week despite his evident high regard for what he believes they can deliver at their optimum.
He and his lieutenants resolutely defend several Bok players who frustratingly underwhelm this year, often trying to placate critical concern with unconvincing, patronising soundbites suggesting, for instance, that Player X may be “doing things people don’t always see or appreciate” or Player Y is “making good progress” in certain facets of his play (while conveniently skirting key others where the man in question is falling rather blisteringly short).
It does seem that Coetzee is set, on Thursday, to confirm reasonably pronounced alterations to his match-day mix for the challenge of Australia at Loftus on Saturday, although once again they will be overwhelmingly from within the extended squad he has so rigidly trusted since early June.
Despite the various switches expected, he is tipped to preserve the status once again of several renowned players widely perceived to be firing this season at levels appreciably below those they have demonstrated in prior years: I would suggest their ranks include all of Tendai Mtawarira (the once forceful “Beast” has given new meaning to utterly humdrum flat-lining in 2016), captain Adriaan Strauss, Francois Louw and Bryan Habana.
All of these are street-smart characters who should be leading the reversal charge in difficult times, whilst Coetzee looks likely to also keep faith in someone like Oupa Mohoje, who I felt was quite abjectly absent from the major “heat” areas as blindside flank in the heavy Christchurch loss to the All Blacks.
You wonder if there is any tangible appreciation within the entire Springbok group, though, for the generous levels of confidence and patience he has afforded them.
I believe they collectively owe Coetzee a thunderous, committed effort at Loftus, as the Boks seek to snap a three-game losing streak.
If the limited Wallabies complete a season double over South Africa, we really are in a fine old pickle … and the coach really will have to abandon emphatically his hallmark penchant for not rocking his team’s personnel boat vigorously.
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