Allister Coetzee has simply no choice but to remain flexible when it comes to his future captaincy appointments, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Thursday’s announcement that incumbent skipper Adriaan Strauss will retire from Test rugby at the end of the year would have caught many off guard.
Not only is Strauss just 30 years old, but he’d emphatically received the backing of Allister Coetzee, who had no hesitation in extending his captaincy duties after the June series against Ireland.
Strauss said he had been contemplating the decision for some time, while Coetzee suggested that he had known Strauss’s intention ‘since day one’, and if taken at face value, it appears his role was only ever likely to be in a temporary caretaker capacity.
Yet, that also simply points to the problematic shortage of clear-cut long-term captaincy options that were available to Coetzee at the start of his tenure.
Right from the outset, Coetzee has said that the Bok captain needs to warrant his inclusion in the side, while having the necessary experience and leadership qualities to handle this extremely challenging role.
At the start of the international season, and in the absence of former first-choice hooker Bismarck du Plessis, Strauss undoubtedly ticked all those boxes, but he was obviously never going to be the man to hold down the captaincy reins for the next four years.
And one way or another, Strauss has done the right thing by bowing out on his own terms and taking what could have been a potentially difficult decision out of the hands of Coetzee.
Warren Whiteley is now the obvious successor. The Lions No 8 is a superb leader, fantastic communicator and deals brilliantly with teammates and the media.
Yet the fact remains that the 28-year-old has featured in just eight Tests (starting in a mere three), and only recently secured a place in the Boks’ starting lineup after Duane Vermeulen was ruled out of action through injury.
Is it the time to burden Whiteley with the extra responsibilities of captaincy when he is really just at the start of his Test career and still focusing on nailing down a permanent place in the starting lineup? It would be a considerable ask to say the least.
Vermeulen and Francois Louw remain the other much spoken of candidates, but at 30 and 31, and considering they are based overseas, the duo certainly can’t be seen as long-term options.
Of the younger generation, Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie have long been lauded for their captaincy potential, but both are currently injured and aren’t assured of a starting place when they return to action.
And therein lies the rub. There is simply no cut-and-dry captaincy candidate who fulfils all the leadership requirements and is a guaranteed starter. At a time when there are so many doubts and question marks over South African rugby, that is a veritable fact.
In light of Strauss’s announcement, some will now suggest that Coetzee should backtrack on his decision to retain the Bulls hooker as captain for the rest of the year, and instead immediately select his successor. But why the rush? Why the rigidity?
Say, for example, the time should come this season when Coetzee believes Strauss no longer warrants a place in the starting lineup, the only option will be to back members of his leadership group such as Whiteley or Louw to take on the captaincy duties.
It could be next week, or it could be weeks from now. Or it could not be a consideration for Coetzee until Strauss has already retired next year. Ultimately, Coetzee can only take it week by week because there is just no ‘clear and obvious’ candidate who the coach can hedge all his bets on to take over and retain the captaincy reins as the long-term skipper.
After the departure of Richie McCaw, by comparison, the All Blacks could obviously turn to Kieran Read. If the latter was unavailable, there would be understandable alternatives in Dane Coles, Ben Smith or Sam Cane, who are all assured of starting berths. Similarly, beyond Stephen Moore, the Wallabies could turn to David Pocock, Michael Hooper or Will Genia.
At the end of the day, at this time of transition, the Boks simply aren’t flush with such options. Strauss is also only hanging up his boots at the end of the year, and there is now time for a succession plan to be put in place.
There should be no haste in showing Strauss the door. Instead, some flexible and open-minded thought process needs to be applied from one Test series to another until a clear-cut candidate has stepped into the breach, and most importantly, justified a starting berth on merit.
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