Allister Coetzee – Springbok Coach

In one of the worst kept secrets in South African Rugby history, Allister Coetzee was announced on the the Springbok coach on Tuesday 12 April.

In fan and media discussions, various names had been thrown into the hat, including those of Rassie Erasmus, Johan Ackerman and even Brendan Venter. There was also support for non-South Africans to be considered but after Oregan Hoskins, President of the South African Rugby Union (SARU), made the very clear statement that only candidates who had an in-depth understanding of the South African context would be considered, it was clear this was not an option.

Hoskins was also clear at the same time that the new Springbok coach, when appointed, would not have the same free reign in selection that his predecessors enjoyed and that the racial transformation targets of the team would effectively be imposed and the Springbok team playing in the next Rugby World Cup in 2019 will consist of 50% black players.

At face value, Allister Coetzee is the man for the job. His CV is packed with coaching highlights – from Assistant Coach in Super Rugby at both the Sharks and the then Cats, to being an Assistant Coach at the Stormers and then Head Coach from 2010 to 2015. He also served as Head Coach of the South African “A” side as well as the South African under-23 side. At an international level, he was Assistant Coach under both Harry Viljoen and Jake White, winning a Rugby World Cup Winner’s medal with White at the 2007 edition. The most experienced South African coach who could have been considered was Johan Ackerman, who by his own admission has unfinished work at the Lions.

Everything is there to indicate a very succesful term as Springbok coach, but I must admit to having some nagging thoughts:

1. Winning the big games

Coetzee’s record of winning the South African Conference in the former Super 15 has been fantastic – 3 winners medals out of 5. What is of concern though is that he was never able to convert league success to success in the knock out phases, despite having a really strong squad at his disposal. Springbok success is always gauged by performance at Rugby World Cup tournaments, which requires a team to win three knock out games to be crowned as champions. Does Coetzee have the ability to win those knock out games, given his record in Super Rugby knock out games?

2. The Game Plan

During Coetzee’s tenure as Stormers coach in Super Rugby, they were known for a strong set piece and a stoic defence, as well as their inability to score four try bonus points. Can Coetzee transform his master plan to match the higher paced game that arch-rivals New Zealand have adopted? Since his appointment Coetzee has already stated that he would not venture far from traditional South African strengths, with some more pace on attack. Traditional South African strength is based on an overcome and subdue game plan, so how much change will there really be?

3. The Assistant Coaches

For years, Coetzee has been loyal to his Forwards Coach Matt Proudfoot and Backline Coach Robbie Fleck and has put his trust in them. SARU have not allowed Coetzee to select his own Assistant Coaches. Johann van Graan, who was appointed by Heyneke Meyer, has been reappointed. Van Graan has previous experience with Meyer’s former Super Rugby side, the Bulls. The Backline Coach is former Blitzbokke 7’s captain Mzwandile Michael Stick. He had a fantastic year in 2015, guiding the Eastern Province Kings under 19 team to the national title against much more fancied opposition. He was elevated to Backline Coach of the Southern Kings in Super Rugby 2016 and has only six games experience in this role. His appointment may yet prove to be an inspirational one, but he will have to overcome a serious lack of experience. The key take out here though, is if Coetzee can build a working relationship with this two new Assistant Coaches and get them to buy into his way of coaching and playing?

4. Team Selection

This could the most thorny issue Coetzee has to face. The word is that SARU might do away with the traditional selection panel and replace it with a selection council comprising of the Super Rugby coaches. Pulling the Super Rugby Coaches closer is definitely a move in the right direction, especially as the idea of a national game plan has long been discussed but never implemented. What is of concern though is the lack of experience in this group. Johan Ackerman of the Lions is in his third year of Super Rugby. Nollis Marais (Bulls), Franco Smith (Cheetahs), Deon Davids (Kings) and Robbie Fleck (Stormers) are all in their first seasons are super Rugby coaches. Gary Gold is in his second season at the Sharks.

5. Planning time

This announcement has been delayed for a long time and Coetzee will need to have the Springboks ready in time to face the touring Irish in only 8 weeks. With South Africa’s top rugby talent currently involved in Super Rugby, there is no time to hold training camps. Has SARU sold Coetzee short on his first Test series?

Here is looking forward to Coetzee proving to be a great success and answering all the open questions we have.

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