Boks lack strong leadership

The Springbok senior players as well as the coaching staff should be held accountable for the team’s shocking performances in the Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Boks looked a decent side for all of 18 minutes at the Suncorp Stadium last Saturday. They started well at the breakdown, and used their defence as a means to attack.

Two turnovers led to two tries. The finishing by Warren Whiteley and Johan Goosen was of a high standard. At that point in the game, the Boks were playing intelligent rugby, and deserved to be 14-3 ahead.

How then did they conspire to throw an 11-point lead away? How did they lose 23-17 to a weak Wallabies side?

It’s plain to see that the Boks aren’t in a great space. They were fortunate to beat Ireland in a three-Test series in June. They were fortunate to beat Argentina in Nelspruit in the Rugby Championship opener.

They deserved to lose to Argentina in Salta, and, based on their performance for 60 minutes in Brisbane, they deserved to lose to the Wallabies.

Some have suggested that the players are caught between two game plans. I got the same impression when following the Boks during the series against Ireland, and subsequently in the leadup to the Test in Nelspruit.

The message from the coaches, that is what brand they are looking to play and what they are trying to achieve as a unit, appears to be as clear as mud.

Coach Allister Coetzee has admitted to the media on more than one occasion that certain players are battling to accept the brutal truth of Test rugby. Coetzee said that it wasn’t as simple as taking the Lions game plan – which was actually exposed as inadequate in the Super Rugby final against the Hurricanes – and implementing it at the Boks.

Coetzee has insisted that set-piece and gainline dominance, as well as an accurate kicking display, are priorities. He has promised to pay more attention to the defence, and has said that the players' basic handling skills require attention.

One is reluctant to give Coetzee credit for acknowledging the obvious. Indeed, one has to ask why the message wasn't made clearer from the outset, and what the communication breakdown says about his ability as a head coach.

Coetzee hasn’t exactly walked the talk these past few months. Some of the selections he has made have been at odds with a more pragmatic philosophy. And if he truly believed that defence and kicking were so important, why didn’t he appoint a long-term defence coach from the beginning of his tenure? Why is there not a full-time kicking coach on tour with the Boks?

The South African rugby structures are a mess, and that impacts on the performances of the national team. That said, more could have been done to ensure that the Boks had what they needed in terms of specialist coaches. The team is now paying for that lack of foresight.

Coetzee has often lamented the Boks’ failings at the gainline. And yet, he has continued to select blindside flankers who lack the ability to dominate the collisions. He has bemoaned the poor quality of tactical kicking, but has persisted with players – Elton Jantjies in particular – who have never been strong in this area of the game.

Not that the players themselves are free of blame. Perhaps they don’t believe in the coach or the game plan. Perhaps the news of captain Adriaan Strauss’s impending retirement from Test rugby has drained them physically as well as mentally.

What has been plain to see is that the senior players are missing something; call it a hard edge or a bloody-mindedness. How else does one explain their performance in Brisbane, where they relinquished an 11-point lead?

The Boks scored 14 points in the first 18 minutes of the contest, and then three points in the following 62. Where was Strauss and his senior players for three quarters of the game? How could they capitulate to a Wallabies side that isn’t exactly a world force at present?

The players in key decision-making positions must also shoulder some of the blame. Not for the first time this season, Jantjies has gone missing when the going got tough.

Some may defend Jantjies by pointing out that a flyhalf will always struggle when his forwards lose the gainline battle. That said, you’d expect a No 10 to fight on, to try to exert an influence on the game despite the challenges.

It wasn’t surprising to see Morné Steyn replacing Jantjies in the latter stages of the Test. Jantjies was battling in general play and had missed a shot on goal. Coetzee obviously felt that Steyn could be counted on to slot a late penalty or drop goal to win the game.

While you can’t blame Coetzee for doubting Jantjies, you can question the situation. Why back a mediocre goal-kicker from the outset? Surely it makes more sense to start a flyhalf who can offer you good tactical- and goal-kicking options – if that is truly at the core of your philosophy.

The Boks will lose to the All Blacks in Christchurch this Saturday. The only question is by how much. One would expect them to play more conservatively following the losses to Argentina and Australia. Whether they have the personnel to do so, is another story.

Photo: Michael Sheehan/Gallo Images

Post by

Jon Cardinelli