Cape Town – “Directionless, so plain to see.”
With apologies for a snatch of the lyrics from one of Joy
Division’s cult classic songs New Dawn
Fades, the line could so easily serve as the undesirable motto for the
Springbok season in 2016.
I believe supporters of the national side, or at least those
dogged stalwarts who remain that, would be a key bit more kindly disposed
toward Allister Coetzee in his troubled maiden season as head coach if his
unusually bleak statistical return – four Test wins out of 12; 33.33 percent –
was accompanied by some suggestion of brighter prospects lying just around the
But while Coetzee provides defiant noises about his desire
to stay in the post next year, even that seems a forlorn wish.
What remotest evidence was there, throughout the year and
especially at grim year’s end for them in Europe, that the Boks are at least
providing seeds of an enterprising, purposeful new method plus the correct
personnel – and no less importantly combinations per position -- to back it up?
It really does seem a pile of ashes, as rugby goes into
merciful recess for high summer on our shores, with so little solid to pluck up
and run with as even a partial beacon of optimism.
“Our set-piece was good.”
That’s a line Coetzee and a couple of his lieutenants have
regularly, perhaps rightfully enough been able to spin, against a formidable,
mounting tide of dissent.
Then again, fat lot of good a sturdy scrum and lineout have
done in terms of the Bok results column, eh?
Indeed, a good part of the efficiency in the latter area, Adriaan
Strauss’s generally pinpoint throwing-in, has now been sacrificed as the
captain retires from internationals and big question marks remain around the
accuracy of at least one likely young successor in the No 2 jersey, Malcolm
So you might argue that we’re pretty much back to square one
in that facet of play, even while so many others have fallen into the most
hapless of disrepair.
Broadly speaking, the Boks retain the nucleus of a
competitive engine room, something that will improve further when Eben Etzebeth
(expensively absent for most of the Twickenham Test, then wholly for Florence
and Cardiff) duly returns to the second row next season and simultaneously
restores some much-needed mongrel if properly fit and fresh … possibly an
ambitious desire in itself?
That said, even the pack can’t be described as a complete
jigsaw set, given rank uncertainties, for example, around who is best deployed
as fetcher – SA have regressed violently in the turnovers department – and also
identification of the correct trooper for blindside flank.
Isn’t it a crying shame that the Boks suddenly have such
issues, such a climate of vagueness, at loose forward, one department where for
many years the cupboard stocks had the door straining to stay shut?
Also to remedy next year will be the loss of Springbok aura
for sheer ruthlessness and grunt as a collective pack of forwards: several
times this season scribes or pundits from Bok opponent countries have expressed
major surprise at the loss of their ability to “bully” foes into submission in
But then there is the even more vexing matter of, frankly,
the entire blerrie backline.
This has got to be a year right “up” there for rank collective
mediocrity – the most polite description -- behind the Bok eight.
The scrumhalf situation, with respect to the various
customers used during 2016, is marked by a hapless, headless-chicken phenomenon,
with no single No 9 ever showing a genuine, regular ability to boss play, to
take shrewd options.
Maybe Cobus Reinach, absent for so much of this year with a
serious knee injury, offers a renewed semblance of hope and, currently aged 26,
bounces back for the Sharks a wiser, more mature figure in the berth.
The constellation of flyhalves tried by Coetzee hardly
created an image of stability at all-important No 10, where Handre Pollard will
be another “rehabbed” player fervently expected to provide a more lasting
solution from 2017 onward.
But this has also been a quite dismal year for outside-back
play in the Bok fold, with magical, game-busting, virtuoso performances by
individuals, from jerseys 11 through to 15, virtually non-existent and gross
under-delivery the prevailing theme.
The picture in this regard was hardly helped by the
noticeable fading of two veterans in the wing slots, Bryan Habana and JP
Pietersen, although these massively proven competitors must have also succumbed
to frustration at varying times, given the appalling scarcity of opportunities
to strut their stuff in suitable time and space.
As if to complete a portrait of chronic confusion from year
one of the Coetzee tenure, when general entertainment value from the national
side arguably ranked around a three-out-of-10 affair – and some wags might suggest
I’m kind – the last line of defence was similarly marked by instability and
Stalwart Willie le Roux had an up-and-down ride, including
inexplicable omission from the Wales Test after being one ray of light in the natural
skills department against Italy, and experiments with the versatile
possibilities of Pat Lambie and Johan Goosen at No 15 produced absolutely no
In what was an excellent year to be out of the picture as a “recovering
patient”, a sprightly Super Rugby campaign for the Bulls from someone like
Warrick Gelant, the former Junior World Championship star, could be his
express-ticket into the Bok landscape for the home series against France in
Isn’t it a sad indictment that best possibilities for
renewal seem to lie in players not damagingly
infected by their very presence in an identity-lacking, low-on-confidence Bok
squad this year?
There has been, scarily, no tangible progress at all by the
Springboks in 2016, and overwhelmingly regression instead on most positional
They will have to wipe the slate clean and start all over
again in 2017, with effectively only three years instead of four to prepare for
RWC 2019 in Japan.
That’s why Coetzee’s job is hanging by the flimsiest of
threads, and also why his survival into another campaign really should be
anything but a foregone conclusion …
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