Cape Town – Rosy results: they’ll help greatly, of course. Style of play: any early signs of improvement on the Springboks’ virtual anti-rugby of their last three matches at RWC 2015 will be welcomed.
But the toughest challenge facing the finally-confirmed new national coach Allister “Toetie” Coetzee as he sets out on a four-year contracted cycle to the 2019 World Cup in Japan will also be the most rigorous ask yet of the man in that portfolio as far as racial rebalancing of the team is concerned.
Under SARU’s much-publicised Strategic Transformation Plan, it is intended, by that year, for 50 percent of the team to be made up of players of colour, with 60 percent of those black African.
Both of those requirements, as things stand, will take some doing as not only was the last Bok squad under predecessor Heyneke Meyer’s tutelage – his 31-strong RWC 2015 one – barely more than a quarter stocked with players of colour, but domestic Super Rugby squads even in 2016 generally aren’t exactly helping to accelerate the process.
In an environment that should quite obviously be a major feeder one for Test candidates, several of the half-dozen SA franchises are already doing the 52-year-old Coetzee no favours through their starting XVs too often comprising a mere sprinkling of black players.
Last weekend, for example, all of the Sharks, Lions and Bulls were earmarked to begin with a mere three each; the Durban side only hiked their tally to four because stringbean lock Hyron Andrews was a late replacement for Stephan Lewies.
Further, it will be a sobering thought to Coetzee that around half of the black players who did crack the RWC 2015 nod – South Africa earned third place, also their current World Rugby ranking – are a bit long in the tooth and thus not exactly the most attractive candidates for any 2019 involvement.
Bryan Habana is almost 33, Zane Kirchner almost 32, Tendai Mtawarira 30 and JP Pietersen closing in on that mark.
Throw in the fact that Trevor Nyakane isn’t starting all the time for the Bulls, nor Loftus colleague Rudy Paige yet playing to the sprightly level he attained at times last year, and you do wonder how the 2019 target is going to be achieved or clawed close to.
In another adverse recent development, 27-year-old Cornal Hendricks – a useful five tries in a dozen Tests in a wing berth – has a serious heart condition, leaving his future in the game massively uncertain.
It will be critically important that the likes of Lionel Mapoe, Oupa Mohoje, Warrick Gelant, Jamba Ulengo, Edgar Marutlulle, Courtnall Skosan and Garth April continue to show upward curves for their franchises over the next two or three years, or Coetzee simply may not have enough options to play with, even as those in the boardrooms nearby or in the corridors of national government perpetually remind him of 2019 intentions.
He might do well to make one of his first tasks strongly urging not only the SARU hierarchy but cajoling the Super Rugby coaches as well to play ball with greater opportunities for black players at that level.
At least the coach will be well familiar with the vast majority of personnel of all hues at the Stormers, from his full six years as their head coach between 2010 and 2015 – a period in which he guided them to a final, the SA conference supremacy three times and boasted a striking win percentage of over 65 percent (64 victories from 98 matches).
Under Coetzee’s tutelage, not only was he notably prepared to pin daring faith pretty often in 20- or 21-year-olds – and they just as quickly tended to look comfortable and empowered – but players of colour broke through at a greater rate of knots than elsewhere in the country.
It will be interesting to see whether men like Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni and Juan de Jongh come back much closer to the front of the Bok pecking order now, and also whether Coetzee is prepared to overlook the dynamic Cheslin Kolbe’s lack of height and kilograms and fast-track him as well (Meyer sometimes spoke a good game around the slippery little fullback, but never backed up words with any meaningful signs of selection faith).
One thing you can be reasonably sure of with Coetzee, who boasts prior intimate knowledge of the squad culture, at the Bok helm is that his sides will usually be tough nuts to crack from the point of view of organisation and devotion to structures.
They say success in rugby still starts in the pack – though the multi-layered, planet-leading All Blacks don’t seem to obsess with that principle too doggedly – and if that is the case the new coach will start with the nucleus of a very healthy engine room.
The country abounds with magnificent young locks like Messrs Etzebeth, De Jager and Du Toit and there are also fine props starting to blossom anew on both sides of the scrum.
Meanwhile the illustrious South African “loose forward factory” still churns ‘em out regularly enough, too.
Of course Coetzee has often copped major flak over the perception that his Stormers backlines were marked more by robotic predictability and caution than anything else, and sometimes that seemed quite glaringly obvious.
But if I was asked to scratch my head and then suggest material in his defence on that score, it would probably be that during his Newlands tenure the franchise tended to be less than blessed with firm decision-makers or special X-factor in the critical channels of Nos 9 and 10.
Scrumhalf (his area of illustrious own playing deployment in the 1980s and early 90s) remains a quandary in the post-Fourie du Preez era, but Coetzee should not struggle for a brainy, skilful pivot as all of Pat Lambie, Handre Pollard (once fit again next season) and Elton Jantjies continue to evolve pleasingly and have almost certainly not reached personal peaks yet.
Coetzee won’t be a Peter de Villiers for wacky, eccentric quotes in the media, and he may not be quite as expansive or emotionally gushing about strategy and player assessment as Meyer, another usually genial predecessor in a “PR” capacity, was.
But he doesn’t easily get ruffled, and almost unfailingly comes across as a genuinely pleasant rugby man in occasional social interactions over a cold beverage with rugby writers (on one or two such instances with this particular scribe, we have usually drifted into his second passion of cricket, where he was a highly-rated wicketkeeper/batsman in the SA Cricket Board days).
Despite the understandable fretting over short turnaround from his appointment to first tasks against Ireland in June, it is difficult to see the Boks tripping at that three-game series hurdle: Six Nations sides can be as weary at the end of the northern season as the Springbok players are in November.
Fair-minded fans would expect nothing short of runners-up spot, realistically, to world champions New Zealand in the 2016 Rugby Championship, and probably delight in the Boks managing victory in one of the two bilateral meetings with the All Blacks, in Christchurch on September 17 and Durban on October 8.
Nicking one of those, under current balance-of-power circumstances and as Coetzee acclimatises to his new job, would be seen as a constructive development …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing