Allister Coetzee can no longer afford to back a Springbok halfback pairing that has such obvious physical and tactical flaws, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Many believe that the backward South African rugby system is to blame. Others feel that the Bok coaching staff and the players themselves must shoulder some responsibility. The reality, of course, is that all of the above have contributed to a pathetic 43% win record after seven Tests in 2016.
Nobody should have expected the Boks to excel in 2016. While the infighting and indecision at administrative level is nothing new, the South African rugby suits outdid themselves when they delayed the appointment of the new national coach until April this year, two months before the first Test of the season.
That said, not even the biggest pessimist could have predicted that the Boks would fare this badly. A home loss to Ireland for the first time in history. Another historic defeat in Argentina. Three straight losses on the away leg of the Rugby Championship for the first time. A 41-13 defeat to the All Blacks in Christchurch which marked the Boks’ heaviest loss since 2011.
The results speak for themselves. The Boks have made no progress since Coetzee came to power. In many ways they have regressed, and a change needs to be made sooner rather than later.
In the middle term, the Boks face the embarrassment of finishing the season with a win record of less than 50%. In the short term, they are in danger of losing five of their six Rugby Championship matches.
The last time they slumped to a similar record was in 2010, when Peter de Villiers’s side lost five out of six Tests in the Tri-Nations. However, it should be pointed out that side played three of those games in Australasia, and did not face Argentina.
South African rugby has big problems that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. That will take time to fix.
On the other hand, Coetzee needs to take action immediately. The Bok coach should spend the next couple of weeks revising his selections and game strategies. He can no longer afford to select players on potential. He needs to back players who have the skills and temperament to win Test matches.
Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies have battled for consistency in 2016, both at Super Rugby and Test level. While De Klerk and Jantjies thrilled with their attacking touches during the regular Super Rugby season, they were shown up in a tactical arm-wrestle against the Hurricanes in the final. Since joining the Bok setup, they have been more mediocre than magical. And as any top coach will tell you, players who make that many errors at the highest level are liabilities.
Sadly, Jantjies has regressed with every passing Test. Nobody will forget Jantjies’s pinpoint kick-pass that found JP Pietersen on the left wing in the decisive third Test against Ireland in June. Unfortunately, those game-breaking moments have been in short supply over the course of a Rugby Championship tournament where opposition defences are tougher to breach.
As the pressure has mounted on the Bok flyhalf, he has slipped deeper and deeper into the pocket. He’s no longer taking the ball flat and looking to orchestrate linebreaks. And as his confidence has dropped, his error rate has skyrocketed.
The above is merely an observation of his attacking play, which is the reason he was selected at No 10 in the first place. His weaknesses in Super Rugby, namely his defence and tactical kicking, have been exposed to a greater degree at Test level.
It was interesting to see so many taking to social media to laud Jantjies’s defence during the recent clash with the All Blacks. Many noted that the Bok flyhalf managed to hold on for dear life. Few observed how often the All Blacks breached the gainline when they ventured down Jantjies's channel, or indeed why they would run at Jantjies so often. He has become a soft target for opposition ball-carriers, and it has cost the Boks in their quest to boss the gainline.
Coetzee has bemoaned the Boks’ poor kicking performances after every Test this season. The Test against the All Blacks was another example of the Boks kicking possession away and inviting the opposition to attack.
By contrast, the All Blacks have kicked to find space or territory, or even to create a contest where they could regain possession. Based on what we’ve seen in the Rugby Championship to date, Jantjies, De Klerk and the other South African kickers don’t have the same mindset or ability.
Coetzee cannot afford to persist with Jantjies. The flyhalf has also battled with his goal-kicking this season, and it has cost the Boks dearly. Coetzee needs to back a player who has the temperament and ability to slot those pressure kicks. It could be the difference between an ugly win and yet another embarrassing defeat when the Boks host Australia in Pretoria on 1 October.
The problem for Coetzee is that his halfback options are limited. Morné Steyn hasn’t been in great form of late, and Pat Lambie only returned to action in the Currie Cup this past Saturday. Handré Pollard, the Boks’ first-choice flyhalf at the 2015 World Cup, will only be back in January 2017.
Perhaps Coetzee needs to look at replacing De Klerk with Francois Hougaard. The latter has featured on the wing for the Boks recently, but has won more collisions than he’s lost. The Boks need more mongrel in their halfback combination. Hougaard is not known for his tactical kicking, but then neither is De Klerk.
To persist with Jantjies would be a gamble. Promoting Lambie may also be viewed as a risk, given that he has played very little rugby over the past three months.
That said, Lambie will offer the Boks more stability in terms of defence, tactical kicking and shooting for goal. At the very least, the Boks could do with a player who has shown, via his match-winning penalty against the All Blacks in 2014, that he has the boot to steer his side to some narrow yet important wins.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)