The Springboks must embrace a new culture that prizes winning and brutal honesty above all else in the wake of Allister Coetzee’s inevitable departure, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Can you believe it? Late on Saturday night, after South Africa’s damning loss to Wales, I learned that there was some doubt regarding Coetzee’s future as Bok coach.
Coetzee has presided over 11 wins in 25 Tests. That record includes inaugural losses to Ireland, Argentina and Italy; as well as record drubbings at the hands of the All Blacks, Wales and Ireland.
Nick Mallett was fired after complaining about ticket prices. Jake White wasn’t retained after winning the 2007 World Cup because he clashed with SA Rugby officials.
How can Coetzee – who has taken the Boks from third to fifth in the world rankings in the space of two years – possibly survive the axe in the coming weeks?
The first 30 minutes of the match in Cardiff were a horror show, even for a side that has established itself as Test rugby’s horror franchise.
The Springboks explored new depths of incompetence with regards to their high-ball receipts and line defence during that period. The roof at the Millennium Stadium was shut, and so there was no good reason for players to drop the ball with such frightening regularity.
The reaction by the coaches and the players after the game was disappointing. Coetzee said that Malcolm Marx should have been awarded a try in the first half – the TMO thought otherwise – and that this was the difference between a win and a loss.
The players themselves also appeared to be in denial with regards to their own shortcomings when speaking to the media afterwards.
The bottom line is that a new coach can’t take charge of this group soon enough.
There’s been no shortage of controversy on this tour. Following the 38-3 defeat to Ireland in Dublin, it was said that Coetzee had had a heated exchange with SA Rugby president Mark Alexander.
There was talk in the lead-up to the game against Italy that Coetzee had already sounded out the Canon Eagles about an employment opportunity. Assistant coach Matt Proudfoot was also linked to the club.
My sources tell me that Coetzee did indeed clash with Alexander in Dublin and that he has been in talks with the aforementioned club about a move to Japan.
The Springboks lost two assistant coaches after the Test against France. Lineout mentor Johann van Graan joined Munster to take up a head coach post while defence consultant Brendan Venter returned to South Africa.
Both losses have been felt by the Springboks in the ensuing weeks, and one has to ask why Coetzee favoured Venter in particular when he knew that the Italy assistant coach – who is contracted to Italy up to and including the 2019 World Cup – was never going to be available for the clash in Padua.
Again, the obvious question is who would agree to a situation that sees two coaches – crucial coaches, according to the players who work with them on a daily basis – departing mid-tour.
So much has been made about the Bok culture this season. Coetzee and the players have waxed lyrical about it. They have spoken about a burgeoning brotherhood and how that has shaped the attitude and the values of the group.
The results and performances, however, have been mediocre. This suggests that something, in terms of leadership and honesty, is desperately missing.
I’ve heard it said that not enough players challenge the coaches in the current set-up. That doesn’t surprise me when I watch the Springboks play week after week, and when I hear the platitudes in the aftermath.
It’s been hard to take Coetzee himself seriously. Last year, he was telling everyone who would listen that the Springboks were on the verge of turning the corner. In the wake of the recent loss to Wales, however, he denounced the 2016 season as a fiasco as if he wasn’t at the helm, and thus responsible, during that period.
I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen on social media these past few weeks. Fans have called Coetzee out on his hypocrisies.
The most ardent of Bok fans have reminded the coach, via Twitter and Facebook, that he denied Van Graan’s move to Munster less than two months ago. Why, they ask, should they believe a word he says going forward?
It’s good to know that the fans record and remember exactly what is said. It’s good to know that coaches, who may assume that their press conference offerings are nothing more than stream-of-consciousness blather to be interpreted and edited by sunshine journalists, are held accountable for their statements.
In this respect, Coetzee has a hell of a lot to answer for.
I’ve heard it said that new director of rugby Rassie Erasmus intends to be a more hands-on coach. I would hope that he plans to be more honest and transparent than his predecessor.
That said, there’s no reason to lie to the public or the media. Anybody can see that South African rugby is not in a good space.
The Boks are not in a good space. Having been on tour with the team for the past four weeks, I can vouch for the fact that standards are low and that some of the players have no idea regarding the severity of the situation.
Perhaps the Boks need some tough love. Perhaps they need someone to come in and remind them that South Africa is a rugby nation that aspires to greatness, not a nation that looks for excuses after losing to a team ranked seventh in the world.
Erasmus has his work cut out for him, though. One would hope that he has the strength to shake things up at the Boks just as he shook things up at the Stormers in 2008.
What Erasmus brings to the party in the early stages of his tenure may not be pretty, and may not fit the narrative of what Coetzee has described as a healthy and happy environment.
Ultimately, the Boks have to make results their priority and realise that a record of 11 wins in 25 Tests is concrete evidence that Coetzee’s philosophy and culture has well and truly failed.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images