'I'm on the right track', says Springboks coach Allister Coetzee
Unlike other Springbok coaches who started strong but flagged as their tenure wore on, Allister Coetzee has picked himself up after a disastrous maiden season
The South African rugby public has seen many shades of Springbok coach Allister Coetzee in his previous roles as a World Cup-winning assistant coach, Currie Cup- winning Western Province boss and the failing Super Rugby Stormers mentor.
Unlike his predecessor Heyneke Meyer, who was combustible material in the coaching box only to straitjacket his way through his media engagements, the 54-year-old teacher from Grahamstown seems to roll with the camera punches in any given situation.
The Coetzee in the coaching box is the still one who celebrates when the need arises and buries his face in his hands when the axe of defeat falls. He is the same one who interacts with the public with an ear-to-ear grin.
It would be stretching it to say he's the second-most animated coach the Springboks have had since the highly educated and utilitarian John Williams held the reins as the first post-isolation coach.The genial Peter de Villiers was a special breed during his three-year tenure, and one South African rugby may not witness in the near future.
Coetzee doesn't try to be confrontational or rock the boat, but a reasonably good 2017 has allowed him a sure-footedness that was absent last year. Yesterday the Boks were in action against Ireland in Dublin.
It came with the territory of starting the job in April last year after Meyer vacated the position at the end of the unsuccessful 2015 Rugby World Cup sojourn in England.
Drawing a blank
He had two months in which to prepare a test team for what was going to be a demanding season, and the results showed.
His Springbok side won only four matches out of 12; a dismal record pock-marked by historic defeats by Ireland in Cape Town and Italy in Florence.There was also the unforgettable Durban debacle in the form of a 57-15 home record drubbing at the hands of the All Blacks on October 7 2016.
That hammering left him and his team in the dire position of travelling to Europe with one leg cut and one arm hanging by a tendon as England, Wales and Italy loomed large.
It came as no surprise that the Boks drew a blank on that tour.
A year on, Coetzee is in a far better space; something afforded him by this year's run of five wins and two draws from nine tests.
As expected, it was the All Blacks who blotted that copy book, with wins in Albany (57-0) and Cape Town (25-24).
The Coetzee of 2017, with a twinkle in his eye but who's seldom lacking a stinging response, is a far cry from the hunched, fighting-from-the-corner 2016 version who was buffeted by storms from all directions.
The Albany annihilation will forever stand out as a sore thumb in Coetzee's tenure, regardless of what he achieves in the future. But in the context of a year in which he was finally able to find his feet, the worst is seemingly over for him for now.
The importance of the 'T-word'
"The rough period was the time in which to prepare the national team and that was the big lesson. You can't not have time to prepare. How can you prepare for a test match in only two weeks? That's what happened last year. How do you build a team environment within two weeks, along with a team culture?
"If you get appointed in April, meet your management team in May and play tests in June, what chance do you have? This year was completely different and the planning was executed very well," Coetzee said."I learnt the realities of coaching at the highest level and one of them is the necessity to have cohesion in your coaching team and the ability to have integration in the coaching setup. You can't have more of the other and less of this, and vice versa. We now have great coaching synergy and all the coaches have bought into that."
One of the ideals of Coetzee's coaching team is transformation. The "T-word" will follow the Springboks wherever they go and that's understandable.
It should be remembered that, in his playing days, Coetzee was denied an opportunity to play for the Springboks because of his excess melanin.
When "unification" finally came round in 1992, the Bok boat had just sailed for the nippy scrumhalf who played for the nonracial South African Rugby Union in the late 1980s and early '90s while representing Eastern Province at Currie Cup and Super 10 level until the mid-'90s.
Black coaches always have that extra motivation to prove themselves because they are often judged on skin colour before credentials.
It was the same with Coetzee when he took over the Springboks and was second-guessed and compared with his predecessor.
The inner strength gathered from his coaching stint in the fickle Western Province rugby setup has seemingly equipped him for the trials and tribulations that come with being Springbok coach.
It's always been clear that the job is seen to be tougher than President Jacob Zuma's, but Coetzee seems to know what he needs to do.
Making SA proud
In the face of falling crowd attendances in the Currie Cup and the Super Rugby tournament across three continents, and a lack of faith in the Springbok brand, Coetzee may be the poster boy for inclusivity in a system that has directly and indirectly been a by-word for privilege and exclusivity.
"My sole job here is to transform this team in a way that all South Africans can be proud of Springbok rugby and not just Springbok rugby, a successful Springbok rugby brand and team."It's not because it's a hope or an issue but I have done it with Western Province where I won Currie Cups with six players of colour starting and still having players on the bench.
"When we won the Super Rugby conference trophy, it was the same. It's not something I wish and hope for. I know it's an imperative like any business imperative. This is an imperative and I'll do it with all the integrity in the world," Coetzee said.
"I'm not going to say anything about my predecessors and I'll do the right thing and one of those is giving opportunities to more players in this country who are good enough to play for South Africa.
"Sometimes people stand this side and they don't make the effort to see what's in front here. They just stand on one side and look and that's the only angle they've got."
A bridge too far
Finding the right compass as a Springbok coach has been something that's eluded most of the 11 men who came before Coetzee.
In his 2013 book, The Poisoned Chalice: The Rise and Fall of Post-Isolation Springbok Coaches, veteran rugby journalist Gavin Rich describes how Bok coaches start out in their position with high ideals and plans before "Mad Coach Disease" sets in and changes everything about them.
This has normally been aligned with the reasonably good starts the coaches have before the dreaded "second-season syndrome" kicks in and brings them back down to Earth.
The universe has worked differently for Coetzee, as an inadequate beginning to his tenure has been followed up by a decent season despite Steve Hansen's All Blacks being a bridge too far.He also seems to have a plan to get the players to understand what it means to represent South Africa.
In the context of the player exodus that has led to more than 300 professional rugby players from these shores going to play abroad, it's an important factor.
Strength in diversity
Coetzee acknowledged that South Africa's diversity could one day be the bedrock of the game's strength once it has been adequately tapped into.
"Firstly, our diversity in this country should be our strength, that's how I feel about it and it is. I see the value in it and it is a strength. The why is the first question. What is the purpose for you to play for the Springboks? Is it because you want the jersey and say, ja you're a Springbok?
"The why is the most important because you need to get the players to understand why they are here, and that is in place now. They are here to play and to represent an entire nation. This team understands that more than anything," Coetzee said.
"There's the who and I know who I want here, and the what. The players know what to do and they know when they're here, they flipping work hard, chase hard and train hard. There's no one I can't train for two sessions a day. All I need now is the how to put in place the plan for 2019 and that's what we're starting to put in place and getting the continuity in place. However, if the other factors are not in place, then you can't get off the ground.
"I feel that I'm on the right track now."