No matter what the results may be over the remainder of the Springboks’ end-of-year tour, considerable changes to the current coaching and player group must take place, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Having watched the Boks’ historic defeat to Ireland at a popular watering hole in the heart of Cape Town on Saturday, it was a damning indictment to witness some of the apathy and indifference from the viewing public.
Despite seeing the Springboks suffer a record loss to Ireland that once would have been unimaginable, there was a very real sense that Bok supporters were hardly shocked by the outcome in Dublin.
After all, we’ve watched this horror movie before. Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen Ireland secure an inaugural win in South Africa despite losing a player to a red card, while the Boks have also lost their first ever away game to Argentina, and also suffered a damning defeat to Italy for the first time.
There’s also been a heaviest-ever home loss to the All Blacks (57-15) last year, which was then followed by the Boks’ worst defeat in Test history as New Zealand again embarrassed their once-proud rivals in a 57-0 thrashing in Albany earlier this season.
The end result is that the South African public and pundits now appeared to have moved to the final stage of grief: acceptance. Denial, anger, bargaining and depression have all come and gone.
So where to from here? Well, it has to be for change to take place, and the good news is that it’s now simply inevitable.
This will be the last week assistant coach Johann van Graan will be with the Boks before taking up his new director of rugby position with Munster, while Brendan Venter will also leave the camp in the week of the Italy Test. His long-term role beyond this year remains unclear.
The same can be said of Allister Coetzee. After this tour, a performance review will take place, where he will have another chance to explain away a second season of underperformance. If one recalls, though, it was around this time last year that Coetzee already used his get-out-of-jail free card.
When reviewing a 2016 season that yielded just four wins and a host of shock losses, he insisted this year would be better once he’d had more time to work with the team and settle on plans and preparations.
Upon reflection, there have been some improvements, but it’s been mighty far from good enough. Yes, the players have made real progress in terms of fitness and conditioning, but many of the skills and execution have remained abjectly poor.
Yes, there have been some encouraging signs of an improved team culture, but in both Albany and Dublin, the Boks looked to be a team that was both mentally and physically shattered.
For what it’s worth, Coetzee has remained defiantly loyal to a group of players who have mostly been unable to repay the faith, while some of his selections and explanations have beggared belief.
The player management of Raymond Rhule and Francois Hougaard has left a bitter taste in the mouth, while the omission of players such as Kwagga Smith, Cobus Reinach, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Makazole Mapimpi and Ruan Combrinck have led to further disillusionment.
There has also been a policy of steadfastly overlooking overseas stars based primarily on a belief that they won’t meet the necessary standards due to the fact they are unable to spend all that much time on training and conditioning in the Bok camp.
It means a player such as Bismarck du Plessis has been unable to hand down the baton to protégé Malcolm Marx, and the same sentiment could be applied to unfulfilled mentorship roles for Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen, Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana.
Even the decision to hand Eben Etzebeth the captaincy in the absence of Warren Whiteley was an opportunity lost. Make no mistake, the Stormers strongman has done a commendable job, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he is the sort of enforcer who would be best served simply being able to focus on unleashing his inner beast rather than reining it in.
That was surely one of factors that saw Siya Kolisi handed the captaincy over Etzebeth at the Stormers, with leadership certainly appearing to bring out the best in the affable loose forward. Kolisi’s appointment as the Boks’ first black Test captain could and would have been at least something to truly celebrate in South African rugby, but alas, it never materialised.
Of course, it’s easy to criticise in hindsight, but the fact remains that Coetzee was handed a second chance this year, and his plans just haven’t come to full fruition. Even if the Boks respond with a typical ‘backs-to-the-wall’ response over the next three weeks, it must surely be too little, too late.
Whatever the case may be, Rassie Erasmus is coming in as director of rugby, and while some suits in SA Rugby might accept mediocrity, this man will not.
Erasmus has given up a highly profitable job at Munster where he had been successful and widely popular because he wants to set South African and Springbok rugby back on the right track.
Make no mistake, he will have very clear-cut plans on what he feels needs to be done to turn things around, and as the de facto head of South African rugby, maintaining the current status quo will surely not be part of those plans.
Erasmus will bring fresh views on the make-up of the coaching set-up, and which players need to be involved. A role change or redeployment of Coetzee can be expected, while defence guru Jacques Nienaber will surely once again add his respected coaching influence to the Bok cause.
With Erasmus having spent time both coaching with and against overseas-based players, he will also have a very different view on who could still have a role to play with the Boks.
One way or another, much-needed change is on the horizon, and it can’t come soon enough.
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