The worst-kept secret in South African rugby has undoubtedly been the inevitable appointment of Allister Coetzee as the Springbok coach, which in itself has been met with a mixed response from the public.
Based on current form, many signs pointed to Lions coach Johan Ackermann as the heir to Heyneke Meyer’s responsibility. However, while a national obligation is a massive honour, and whether he was even in the running or not, Ackermann’s progressive leaps with the Lions shouldn’t be undermined by a Springbok coaching position, and his decision to focus on the Johannesburg-based side is commendable.
That leaves the sentiment of whether Coetzee was a political designation or not as irrelevant – he best man for the job, and he has the credentials to silence the most sceptical of critics.
Coetzee’s most notable accomplishments include being appointed as assistant coach to the Springboks in early 2004, where he formed a successful coaching trio with Jake White and Gert Smal until the end of 2007, capping off four memorable years with the winning of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.
Coetzee then led the Stormers to three South African Conference titles during his tenure as Stormers head coach, and he was also successful in his role as coach of Western Province, where he won the Currie Cup twice, in 2012 and 2014.
While he never managed to get both hands on the coveted Super Rugby trophy, there’s no doubt that Coetzee has helped create a positive culture within the Stormers environment, and that’s one of the most important things he can transpose into the national side.
Coetzee has already highlighted the importance of the greater environment in which the Springboks will operate, and even more importantly, the management team that will surround him.
Former Springbok Sevens captain Mzwandile Stick will join Johann van Graan as assistant coach. Stick joins the coaching staff after a stellar playing career with the Springbok Sevens, where he was the captain and also a member of the team that won the World Series title in the 2008/09 season. Having a backline coach with a tight grasp and focus on fundamental ball-skills, space identification, and speed will do the Springbok set-up a world of good. Traditionally, South Africa has always had the superior physicality in world rugby, but basic skills have prevented the Springboks from achieving their potential above that of our Australiasian neighbours. Stick’s involvement, and Coetzee’s confidence in him to implement an expansive attacking gameplan, should bring out the best in South Africa’s younger stars.
But getting a slicker backline won’t deliver the goods immediately, and thankfully Coetzee has diagnosed all the areas which need vast improvement, namely: general speed of play, movement off the ball, repositioning after a tackle, and the width of attack. However, the cornerstone of South African rugby that needs to remain (or at least reignite) is defence.
Thankfully, the Stormers have had the best defensive record in recent years, having the lowest tries conceded in the 2010, 2011, and 2013 Super Rugby seasons. If Coetzee can maintain that defensive prowess with the Springboks’ calibre of tacklers at his disposal, the Springboks could once again turn home-grounds into impenetrable fortresses, and isn’t that what everyone wants to see?
While some may disagree, there’s no denying that Allister Coetzee will benefit tremendously from the groundwork Heyneke Meyer put in. While his statistics didn’t overly impress during his time as national coach, Meyer managed to rebuild a team culture that seemed deteriorated following Peter de Villiers’ tenure, and introduced a wealth of new young players into the fold, such as Damien de Allende, Handré Pollard, Jesse Kriel, and Willie le Roux. Like Peter de Villiers did with Jake White’s World Cup winning team, Coetzee will inherit a team and culture (minus a few veterans) that has a lot of experience and a new mentality about attacking rugby. His job is to cultivate it, and not squander it by resorting to a conservative gameplan.
That said, some detractors may believe that South African rugby has never showcased the attacking intent likened to that of their Southern Hemisphere counterparts, and potentially never will, but it’s clear that the Springboks are capable of such feats. Just thinking back to the highly-competitive encounters in Ellis Park in both 2013, 2014, and 2015 during the Rugby Championships, it’s clear that the Springboks have what it takes to defeat the All Blacks – and not simply by relying on lineout mauls and penalties, but with attractive running rugby. Coetzee will be adopting this unrefined sculpture that Meyer has crafted; Coetzee now just needs to polish it up, then we may just have something truly special to look forward to.