The short-handed Springbok coaching staff needs all the help it can get ahead of the Tests against Italy and Wales, writes JON CARDINELLI in Padua.
Was it an unfair question, or in fact a logical one?
This seemed to be a point of debate among some of the travelling journalists in Padua on Monday afternoon. Lineout coach Johann van Graan and defence consultant Brendan Venter have left and will not be replaced on this tour. Instead, Allister Coetzee, Matt Proudfoot and Franco Smith will absorb these roles ahead of two games the side desperately needs to win.
How does this work? How do three take on the workload of five at Test level?
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are great appointments for South African rugby. Why can’t the new director of rugby and his assistant – sharp lineout and defence exponents respectively – be tapped for insight and direction? These questions seem fair, obvious and important.
Coetzee assured reporters in Padua that plans were put in place ahead of the tour. Coetzee and SA Rugby knew that Van Graan and Venter were only going to available for the first two Tests. That said, it was known well before the squad was selected that Erasmus and Nienaber were on their way back.
Not a lot has made sense on this tour, from the selections to the assistant coach situation to the decision to squeeze hulking forwards into economy-size seats on an overnight flight from South Africa to Europe. Coetzee and his lieutenants will have a lot to answer for after this tour, but then so too will their bosses at SA Rugby.
One can’t help but feel that everyone involved is going through the motions on this tour. Coetzee himself has confirmed that he won’t speak to the new director of rugby until ‘next year’. It’s not exactly a lie. Coetzee, who has a win record of 10 from 23 and has presided over several record defeats, is unlikely to be at the helm of the Boks in 2018.
There will be changes next year, both in terms of the Bok coaching structures and the way the team plays. So what does this mean for the current tour, or more specifically for the two potential banana peels against Italy and Wales?
Coetzee effectively answered this question when he said that he would pick his strongest available side for the clash against Italy. As many as nine players sat out of training at the Valsagana Rugby Club in Padua on Monday afternoon. Eben Etzebeth (lower leg) and hooker Malcolm Marx (shoulder) are the only real concerns. Clearly the coaches are taking no unnecessary risks.
If Etzebeth and Marx pass fit on Thursday, Coetzee is likely to name a starting side that sees one change. Pieter-Steph du Toit is expected to replace Siya Kolisi at No 7, as the latter is on paternity leave.
Coetzee spoke about building momentum after a scrappy win against France. Clearly he is desperate for another tick in the win column. Italy are ranked 13th in the world at present, but no one, least of all the Bok coach, would have forgotten about South Africa’s inaugural defeat on Italian soil last November.
It was interesting to hear Coetzee calling for improvements at the lineout, under the high ball, and on defence. The coaches that usually deal with these aspects of play are no longer with the side.
Yes, the Boks have a premeditated plan for matches against Italy and Wales. But in the wake of specific lineout and defensive failures against France, who will make the necessary adjustments?
Again, these are pretty obvious and logical questions to be asking.
It’s tempting to describe this tour as a write-off. The reset button will be pressed in 2018 and optimism may spring anew when Erasmus reveals his plan for the series again England and ultimately the 2019 World Cup.
Yet one needs to bear in mind that the Boks will play Italy during the pool phase at that World Cup. They may meet Wales in the playoffs of that tournament.
They gave away psychological points when they lost to another potential World Cup opponent in Dublin two weeks ago. There will be more to lose than pride in Padua and Cardiff over the next fortnight.
An ideal scenario would see SA Rugby making use of all available resources. The Boks need to get something out of the last two games on tour. They are unlikely to realise their objectives with a depleted coaching staff, though.
The Boks beat France last week, and may beat Italy this Saturday. One gets the feeling that this tour, like much of Coetzee’s tenure, will still be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP Photo