by Gavin Rich 18 December 2017, 13:36
The announcement on Allister Coetzee’s future as Springbok coach has been delayed until next year but that is probably a case of having to satisfy legal requirements and other red tape issues, for it would be surprising if a decision has not already been made.
If you want to bet on the outcome of the Bok series against England next year, and the odds at the moment are excellent if you want to put your money on the hosts, bear something in mind – Rassie Erasmus will almost certainly be in charge of the South African fortunes. And although playing England in three tests is a tough way to start, the Bok chances have to be improved considerably. Erasmus has always been a clever coach, but he would have grown considerably during his 18 months overseas.
Even if Coetzee was to remain on as coach, Erasmus was always going to play a more leading role in 2018. He would not have come back from Ireland, where he derived considerable enjoyment and satisfaction from coaching Munster, if he was not going to have more powers than he did in his previous designation as head of rugby at SA Rugby.
Heyneke Meyer didn’t listen to him, and the delay in naming a replacement for Coetzee and the slow machinations of the rugby administration irked him enough to prompt the departure for Ireland in 2016. It stands to reason then that only the carrot of having control would have lured him home.
FIVE CONSECUTIVE WINS
But back in August, when the Boks had just beaten Argentina in Salta, you could have taken poison in backing that Coetzee would at least be working with Erasmus as head coach, as he did for a time when Erasmus was effectively director of rugby at Western Province.
After five successive wins, including Coetzee’s first in an overseas test, it all looked like it was going swimmingly for the Boks. Coetzee had said in the build-up to the last test of 2016 in Cardiff that he would resign at the end of this season if his team did not show considerable improvement on his first year in charge. And there is no denying that even if you ignored the more positive results, the Boks did look like at last they were being coached properly and were assuming an identity.
“A well-coached if perhaps lightweight international team” was how Nick Mallett described the Boks after their 3-0 win over the French and the former Bok coach and current Supersport studio expert was as enthused after the two tests against Argentina that started the Castle Lager Rugby Championship challenge.
The Boks were never threatened in any of their first five matches and to that point, with the All Blacks having lost a test to the British and Irish Lions, the Boks were challenging to be the most successful team.
Mention of the All Blacks though introduces the caveat that was always hanging in the air even when Coetzee’s most acerbic critics were conceding through gritted teeth that he had done enough to secure himself the job until the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Had the Boks really played anyone yet?
Reality started to bite when the Boks drew with Australia in Perth in their first match in Australasia. There shouldn’t at that stage have been any need to panic as the Boks don’t often win away against the Wallabies. But the Boks did show susceptibilities when placed under pressure in the first half that had not been evident against France and the Pumas. Even though they finished strongly in that test, the warning lights were flickering.
Those lights gave way to a frightening downward spiral in Albany, just north of the Auckland harbour bridge, a week later. We thought we’d seen the darkest of days for Bok rugby when they lost 57-15 to the Kiwis at home in October 2016. However, the North Harbour result was far worse. It was a record defeat and it changed the discourse of the Bok year.
Before that the signs were positive. The greater time that Coetzee had to prepare, the camp in Plettenberg Bay in the pre-season where the squad worked on team culture, and the addition to the coaching group of the astute and influential Brendan Venter had all led to a consistently positive spin. It took 80 minutes to ruin that.
The All Blacks said afterwards that the Boks weren’t as bad as 57-0 and they were probably right. The return clash with the world’s best team was a desperately close-run thing for Kieran Read’s men. Coetzee, if he is sacked, will in time look back at the one point that separated his team from victory at Newlands as probably the ultimate difference between him holding onto his job or having to relinquish it.
He wasn’t helped either by the two draws with Australia. The Boks would have been expected to beat the Wallabies in Bloemfontein. They made some poor decisions there and were perhaps lucky not to lose. Those two draws meant that the Boks ended the year with just seven wins in 13. Enough of an improvement on 2016? Well, it was an improvement, but arguing that it was enough for a continuation would be disingenuous in the sense that the Boks could not possibly have been worse in 2017 than they were the year before.
THE LAND OF IRE
The other big defeat that ensured that Coetzee ended the year with his back to the wall was the one in Dublin. Only once before that had the Boks been so comprehensively outplayed by a Six Nations team, and that was the disastrous 53-3 defeat at Twickenham back in 2002.
Ireland won 38-3 and while some might argue that the 50 pointer the Wallabies conceded to Scotland later in the British autumn brought some perspective on the changing power balance in world rugby, that should be irrelevant to the Bok coaching debate.
Coetzee was followed throughout the year by question marks over his selections, even when his team was winning, and the perception that the back three configuration in particular was problematic never went away. Indeed, it was accentuated by his decision to play young fullback Warrick Gelant out of position on the wing in his first start against Wales.
That Cardiff match was the last of the year and the third successive defeat to the men from the Principality on their home stadium (2014, 2016 and 2017) was a galling way to end the year. Although the Boks showed commitment and guts in fighting back from a 21-3 deficit to almost win the game, the Welsh were significantly under-strength due to injury.
What that match did show though was that the Bok forward pack is a tough unit that has the potential to be the best in the world, something that was also made evident in the home test against the All Blacks.
So, there is potential for a dramatic turn-around going forward, something similar to what Eddie Jones managed with England after the last World Cup.
One aspect that needs to be settled regardless of who is coaching next year is the team leadership. There can be no denying that Coetzee was hurt by the injury that robbed him for most of the year of his chosen leader, Warren Whiteley.
Eben Etzebeth is a proud man who led the team well from the front when they were in front, but he looked a bit like a deer caught in the headlights when the side fell behind.
With Duane Vermeulen possibly back in the mix more permanently next year, there might also be question marks over whether Whiteley will automatically regain his place. What is crystal clear is that some hard thinking needs to be done on the leadership group as they were conspicuous by their absence in both Albany and Dublin.
The big positive of the year was the emergence of the immense Malcolm Marx as a world class player, and the maturation of Jan Serfontein at inside centre. Unfortunately Serfontein wasn’t available for the end of year tour, which was where the Bok backs were sorely shown up.
In many ways it was a year of small margins for the Boks. Had the two drawn tests against the Wallabies been won and the All Blacks been defeated at Newlands, there'd be an entirely different perspective on 2017. But it will be the big margins that will be remembered the longest.
Springbok RESULTS FROM 2017
SA 37 France 14
SA 37 France 15
SA 35 France 12
SA 37 Argentina 15
Argentina 23 SA 41
Australia 23 SA 23
New Zealand 57 SA 0
SA 27 Australia 27
SA 24 New Zealand 25
Ireland 38 South Africa 3
France 17 South Africa 18
Italy 6 South Africa 35
Wales 24 SA 22
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