By Dhirshan Gobind
The official unveiling of Allister Coetzee as the new Springbok coach was met, unsurprisingly, with mixed reactions from the public and rugby fraternity at large. It was probably the worst-kept secret in rugby circles as most fans already knew exactly who will be named as the Bok head-honcho — weeks before Coetzee’s appointment. In my opinion it is eight years too late as he should have naturally succeeded Jake White when he was assistant to him from 2004 to 2007.
As is customary he will take charge over the next four-year cycle leading up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Coetzee is only the second non-white coach after Pieter de Villiers. Taking on the role of Springbok top dog brings with it very unique and uphill challenges and is not for the faint-hearted. Coetzee will have his work cut out and will have to please both the demanding rugby public as well as the boardroom politicians.
On the face of it Coetzee’s task seems simple and straight-forward to the average rugby fan: get back to winning ways and transform the team. Easy enough right? Wrong! His challenges run much deeper and perfecting this extremely delicate balancing act requires an individual who can absorb pressure, both on and off the field, doesn’t get ruffled easily and has a thick skin to boot. So, what can our sports-crazy, rugby-loving citizens expect and look forward to over the next four years?
A teacher by trade, Coetzee is a very experienced tactician at the highest level. He has most definitely earned a shot at the job. As a decent player in his youth and even a junior Springbok in the early nineties, he turned out to be a very astute assistant coach at the Sharks and then the Springboks under Harry Viljoen as well as White when we won the 2007 World Cup. He then went on to coach Western Province to two Currie Cup titles and turned them into consistent Super Rugby performers. He was recently head coach of Japan’s Kobe Kobelco Steelers and is a well-respected leader throughout the rugby world. He is also a likeable guy in the media and forms good relationships with his players and is not a dictator or disciplinarian. His man-management skills are impeccable.
The one aspect that rugby pundits always brought to attention regarding Coetzee was his conservative, defensive mindset and playing style. This was what in all likelihood prevented him from leading the Stormers to the Super Rugby title. Even Coetzee’s predecessor Heyneke Meyer at least won a Super title. However, Meyer was derided in the media for the exact same “10-man” game plan approach and this will not be tolerated this time. If we stand any chance of catching the All Blacks we need to employ a much more expansive, running style of rugby. Coetzee has promised a “bold” playing style and I indeed hope this does bear fruition.
A corollary to the above negatives is the all-important transformation issue. How does a coach focus on winning strategies, tactics and techniques without the added distraction of having to racially balance the team? It is a thankless task as this type of scenario always causes some sort of divide among both public and players and you are never going to please everyone all at once. The one aspect in Coetzee’s favour is that his Province and Stormers teams were consistently well-represented with non-white players, teams who also produced great results. My biggest fear is that if the South African Rugby Union enforces its quota requirements then certain world-beating, high-class white performers are going to be left out to the detriment of the team.
To add to the negatives above, Coetzee’s support staff does not warrant the level of confidence that Springbok assistants indeed should. Backline coach Mzwandile Stick seems to be getting the brunt of the criticism as many believe, including me, that there are much better candidates for the job. He was a good player but his coaching abilities are still fairly unproven at the highest level. How are we going to cut through the All Black and Wallabies defensive systems without proper backline tutelage?
Forwards coach Johann van Graan has not really covered his name in glory under Meyer and should have also been replaced. My personal dream team would have been Nick Mallett as head coach with John Mitchell and Rassie Erasmus as his side-kicks, Jacques Nienaber as defence guru, Percy Montgomery as kicking coach and Os du Randt in charge of the scrums.
Yes the negatives do seem to out-weigh the positives with this new appointment but it will be unfair to lambast and judge the new coaching staff just yet. I encourage the public to wait until the end of the year, after the Ireland series, Rugby Championship and European tour and then have their fair say. De Villiers was vilified even before he walked out of his very first press conference but ended up being the coach with the best record against the All Blacks with four wins. In terms of on-field performance, Coetzee will ultimately be judged by his record against the world champions and the 2019 World Cup, where anything less than a win will be viewed as a massive failure and rightly so.
For now I advise Coetzee to crack open the bubbly and celebrate. Being named Bok coach is no mean feat and we all would kill for such a post. He will also need to reserve all his energy for the monumental task that lies ahead and even offer a prayer or two. Good luck Allister, I sincerely hope you prove everyone wrong, including myself. The proof will be in the pudding and the only thing that will ultimately matter will be the on-field results. Oh, and please don’t forget to make Duane Vermeulen our captain. We will all have our say but for now, let us give the benefit of the doubt to our new coach as it is indeed … too early to judge.
Dhirshan Gobind is a 30-something freelance sports columnist/writer and a University of KwaZulu-Natal alumnus with a degree in marketing management. He also has a tri-weekly column in the Post.