Allister Coetzee’s management of the Springbok leadership group will be crucial to the team’s success in the 2016 Test season, writes JON CARDINELLI.
By the end of 2015, every coach, player and fan had a clear idea of where the Boks were lacking. Indeed, it was plain to see that an inferior kicking game as well as a misfiring attack cost South Africa dearly in the World Cup semi-final defeat to New Zealand.
Another patent trend, at least in the eight Tests against the All Blacks between 2012 and 2015, was South Africa’s tendency to slip – both mentally and physically – in the last 20 minutes of a contest. Then Bok coach Heyneke Meyer routinely admitted that the No 1 side in the world was the fitter team.
It’s something to keep in mind as a new Bok coach and team build toward the start of the next four-year cycle.
Coetzee has, of course, made all the right noises in the lead-up to the 2016 Test season. He’s promised to address the shortcomings on attack. This past week in Stellenbosch, Coetzee put the squad through a series of intense kicking and defensive drills. The Boks are looking to play a more balanced game in 2016.
It’s harder to say whether Coetzee and his lieutenants have addressed the team's other major shortcoming. We may only know whether the Boks are fitter and mentally stronger after their three-Test series against Ireland. That said, a more accurate judgement on where this Bok team stands can only be made after the Rugby Championship, a tournament that features New Zealand and Australia, the No 1 and 2 teams on the planet.
By the end of that tournament, we will have a clear idea of what is working and what needs revision. It promises to be a challenging period for South African rugby on a number of fronts.
The new leadership group will have their work cut out for them. Coetzee’s management of that leadership group, both on and off the field, will also have a bearing on results.
Last Monday, Coetzee confirmed that Adriaan Strauss will lead the team in the series against Ireland. Coetzee then went on to suggest that Strauss is the favourite to captain the Boks beyond the June Tests.
Strauss has been a member of the Bok senior group since 2013. He was a vice-captain during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. There’s not a shred of arrogance in the man. He commands respect from his opponents as well as his teammates.
In 2012, I had a chance to sit down with former Bok captain John Smit. At the time, the Boks had just beaten England 2-0 in the first series of the four-year cycle. Everybody was talking about the Boks’ long-term captaincy options, and so I put the question to Smit. While the 2007 World Cup-winner was a fan of Jean de Villiers’s leadership style, he mentioned Strauss as another strong candidate.
Four years later, and Coetzee has elevated Strauss to the position of ultimate responsibility. Given that SA Rugby wants the Bok captain to be based in South Africa, Strauss is a logical choice. That said, it is a choice that will present Coetzee with a big challenge going forward.
In Smit’s era, it was possible for a hooker or a prop to play 80 minutes on a regular basis. Nowadays, few front rankers go the distance.
The pace of the game has increased, with more ball-in-play time than ever before. Many coaches take off their starting front rankers after 50 or 60 minutes. Nowadays, the front rankers on the bench are not just reserves. They have an important role to play in closing out a game.
Coetzee may well push Strauss to play for the bulk of the three Tests against Ireland. However, in the fast and furious Rugby Championship, the Bok coach will need to manage Strauss more carefully.
He will also need to be mindful of who deputises for Strauss in the latter stages of a big game. That deputy, or indeed the on-field leadership group as a collective, will be responsible for steering the team to victory.
This past week, so many have made the point about Strauss beating the likes of Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw to the captaincy. While I know that both Vermeulen and Louw would relish the chance to lead their country, I also know that these senior statesmen remain crucial to Strauss's success and to the South African cause.
Much has been made about the other senior players in the team. Frans Malherbe (Stormers), Pat Lambie (Sharks) and Warren Whiteley (Lions) are all captains of their respective franchises. They will take on more responsibility as the Test season progresses.
Strauss will have a key role to play in the coming months. However, the reality of modern rugby is such that a hooker rarely plays 80 minutes week after week. Strauss may not be the man who is tasked with making game-shaping decisions in the final stages of Test matches. Those calls may need to be made by other members of the senior core.
It’s something for Coetzee to bear in mind as he establishes a leadership pecking order. It’s something that will need to be considered before every Test. The management of the starting XV and substitutes bench has to be precise to ensure that the Boks finish Test matches with a roar and not a whimper.
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