Springboks

These are the dying embers of Allister

2017-11-21 13:22
Allister Coetzee (Getty)

Cape Town – Enjoy them while – though an altogether more critical word on current form is “if” – you can.

The games against Italy and out-of-Test-window Wales, which will have relatively little purpose as good yardsticks now anyway, almost certainly represent Allister Coetzee’s final fling as Springbok head coach … or, at least, with the affable but regrettably exposed “Toetie” as the personality in proper charge of the national team.

If there is any green-and-gold future at all for him, it seems increasingly obvious it will be with hugely clipped wings, and you would like to think that his professional pride might well preclude him for continuing under such circumstances.

He still has something to offer the first-class game at other levels, with a track record good enough to confirm as much, regardless of the more vehement, strident sentiment expressed about him in his too often troubled, grossly under-delivering tenure with the Boks since 2016.

Here are half a dozen of the most pivotal reasons, I believe, for the sands of time running out (surely?) on Coetzee after the tour-closing Cardiff fixture on December 2:

1 Undeniably poor statistical track record

For a brief period this year, a new dawn flickered fairly promisingly, as the Springboks showed welcome zest and zip in drubbing France in a home series (though we were again reminded much more recently of that country’s own palpable limitations) and then comfortably winning games one and two of the Rugby Championship against Argentina … albeit the Pumas another faded force.

But since then, Coetzee has slipped back into victory-lacking habits much too akin to his collectively hideous 2016 campaign.

It is a cold fact that, even if he earns successive wins against Italy and Wales, he will only shift from a total win percentage in charge of 48 percent (from present 43) across two seasons.

That is simply not good enough for a supposedly top-tier nation like South Africa, and this year has also seen a continuation of the trend under his command of some especially violent reverses that arguably reveal much more than any industrial, ground-out triumphs do.

2 Lack of clarity over Bok game plan, and fast-receding standards of entertainment value

The European tour, at least thus far, has only served ongoing notice that the Boks are trapped in a largely featureless, swirling array of currents, gameplan-wise.

Give Coetzee a bit of credit: the Bok pack remains a very useful unit. Indeed, the forwards must wonder sometimes what more they, specifically, need to do to make the team as a whole more competitive in matches where they are eventually beaten, or in those where victory should really be secured with far greater comfort than is managed on the scoreboard.

So that “traditional strength” up front has not been too meaningfully diluted in the current coaching regime.

Yet the Boks remain, gallingly, little short of clueless for attacking formula and execution, an area where your backline naturally is expected to play a major role.

Even the most basic of skill levels leave so much to be desired, and remember that Coetzee himself was once a scrumhalf of great repute, so sparkle behind the scrum is something you’d reasonably expect him to be pretty adept at instilling (No 9 itself also remains an area of grave concern, by the way).

Meanwhile the Bok defence stays desperately inconsistent, aerial assuredness is largely absent and far too much hard-won possession simply gets frittered away with wasteful kicks down the opposition throat.

It makes for grim spectacles in entertainment terms (Dublin and Paris strong recent examples) far more often than we would like - something that breeds cynicism and outright ridicule and is damaging to the Bok “brand” and global reputation, frankly.

3 The bizarre, telling skirting of contact with newly-empowered Rassie Erasmus

It is hard not to deem it a sharpening of the guillotine blade when SA Rugby announces, as they did on Monday, that ace planner and strategist Rassie Erasmus, fresh off his acclaimed stint with Munster, has officially taken up office as Director of Rugby already.

But he will also “not be directly involved”, as they put it, with the national team until the new year, which seems to indicate that it may well be with a clean (or read: Coetzee-less) slate.

There was also understandable perplexity when it became known that, ahead of the traumatic date with Ireland, there had been no contact between the pair -- despite Erasmus’s obvious local, up-to-the-minute info and expertise.

It hardly suggests a looming marriage made in heaven, does it?

4 Stubbornness, and tolerance of rank mediocrity, in selection

The stated intention by Coetzee to seek his strongest possible combo to play Italy will deeply frustrate and demoralise, almost certainly, many critics and fans.

It only indicates how self-interest – though how can you blame him, in some ways? – at the expense of future planning and building of depth has engulfed Coetzee as he struggles to stay at the tiller.

Most, greatly more secure coaches of established major powers would be far more inclined to resort to fringe members of their travelling parties against the modest Azzurri, making it an educative exercise rather than a depressingly “must win, and quality be damned” sort of one.

It also seems clear that Coetzee is overly anxious to start with two of his rare, genuinely world-class pack members on Saturday – Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx – despite their rising workloads this year in the demanding engine room and injuries suffered in the narrow subduing of France: that is the extent to which paranoia over another possible embarrassment from the minnows has set in!

So it appears an array of hitherto idle members of the squad, for whom Italy should represent an ideal opportunity to get a feel for international rugby and probably generate good confidence as well, will instead stay merely in “blazers” this weekend.

Coetzee also sticks enduringly, at least as things stand, to more players than many observers would like who almost constantly underwhelm.

I do not wish to harp on too ceaselessly about my own particular bugbear, the defensively iffy and physically unremarkable back three, but how Andries Coetzee and Courtnall Skosan, for example, have managed to assemble hugely generous, unbroken trots of 11 starts each this year only serves as a slap in the face for all other candidates in their positions – and it is not as though there aren’t any appealing alternatives.

5 Unremarkable transformation record

As just the second black coach to guide the Springbok cause, it was understandably expected that Coetzee would carry a spirited baton for transformation.

Yet once again, in a climate where the stated goal is for a 50 percent featuring of players of colour, the starting XV he chose against France featured only four (26.6 percent) and time is clearly fast running out to hit the target satisfyingly by 2019 deadline.

At least one of those favoured quartet, Zimbabwean-born Tendai Mtawarira, isn’t exactly a new find, considering that he debuted in 2008 and has experienced the tenures of three Bok coaches, whilst Skosan and Dillyn Leyds are anything but truly nailed-down presences right now.

Meanwhile, potentially exciting customers Curwin Bosch, Warrick Gelant and Lukhanyo Am (in the squad touring Europe) and, elsewhere, Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe, Nizaam Carr, Ox Nche, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Damian Willemse and others continue to be overlooked.

6 The time needed to ‘fix the mess’ before RWC 2019

Already it is well less than ideal that, midway through the four-year cycle to another World Cup (in Japan in two years’ time) there is such renewed instability over the head coaching post.

But it is obviously better to have to make a change, if it is indeed in the pipeline, two years shy of the premier tournament rather than a dangerously unsatisfactory, mere one or less.

That would make better allowance for new methods, new clarity of direction to take reasonable root.

Remember that if Coetzee stays, he has the formidable first task next year of trying to see off Eddie Jones’s England in a June (home) series … let’s just say the Boks are not exactly firm favourites at this juncture, so there’s the real threat of a back-foot start even if the incumbent is somehow still clinging to his post by a bootlace then.

The longer SA Rugby leaves what now ought to be the inevitable, the more the damage that will have to be undone and the more flak the “suits” will undoubtedly face as a consequence too …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  allister coetzee  |  rugby
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Saturday, 09 June 2018
New Zealand v France, Auckland 09:35
Australia v Ireland, Brisbane 12:05
South Africa v England, Johannesburg 17:05
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Australia v Ireland, Sydney 12:05
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