Allister Coetzee’s career as Springbok head coach was marked by an 11-25 test record.
This includes four wins against France, three against Argentina, and one against Italy. This record also includes two wins against Ireland, and one against Australia. The Boks had no Test victories against New Zealand, England, or Wales.
Whether or not SARU (South African Rugby Union) was right to fire him, several issues undermined his tenure. For a rugby nation as proud as South Africa, a 44% win record is not good enough. This does not excuse the theory that Coetzee would have succeeded in a different set of circumstances.
When looking at Coetzee’s time as head coach, it is important to remember that the Springboks put in some good performances. And that with five more points, the Boks would be the winners of the Rugby Championship. Two draws with Australia did not help, because it demonstrated how well and poorly they can play.
Then there was that Test match in South Africa, where the Kiwis ran out with a narrow 25-24 victory. They showed solid defence, and creativity in attack, and were one Damian de Allende penalty away from a victory. Had the centre not seen red for a shoulder-charge on Lima Sapoaga, the Boks win.
The 57-0 demolition in New Zealand and the 38-0 drubbing in Ireland were exceptions to this. The Boks were dreadful and Coetzee was part of that.
These close affairs continued in the Autumn Test Series, where they lost 24-22 to a depleted Wales side. Beating France and Italy were not terribly difficult challenges but may have bought Coetzee a little bit of time.
Continuing the previous point, the South Africans were notoriously wasteful during this year. Missing key opportunities against Australia and New Zealand meant that the Boks finished the year with just seven Test wins.
The days of J.P. Pietersen, Willie Le Roux, and Bryan Habana have gone, and it is starting to show. For all of the pace that Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule offer, they offer little else. They are quick but lack the poacher’s instinct, defensive skill, or creativity.
Elton Jantjies filled in very well at fly-half, especially with Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie out. His creativity and running game made him an excellent replacement. He also had his flaws, especially missing key penalties against Australia and New Zealand.
There is also a critical lack of creativity in midfield. It was one of Coetzee’s key flaws, his persistence to stick with hard-trucking and powerful centres. That is what makes Jan Serfontein, and Francois Venter so key to the side. Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende are great ball carriers but offer little in the form of go-forward.
The Springboks have a very good side, but they have some key issues within their squad. The back line has very little in the way of experience, predatory instinct, or defensive solidity. Rhule, Skosan, and Dillyn Leyds never proved themselves at the top tier of World Rugby.
They also lack a stable front row. Loosehead in pretty solid with both Tendai Mtawarira and Steven Kitshoff. Neither Bongi Mbonambi and Chiliboy Ralepelle are adequate replacements for Malcolm Marx, who has suffered with his lineout throwing. Tighthead is the most problematic, where the penalty-prone Ruan Dreyer and injury-prone Coenie Oosthuizen are the starting options.
Centre has always been one of Coetzee’s weaknesses. His inability to select promising players has recurred throughout the years. Doubts over Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lukhanyo Am, and Francois Venter are well documented, and continued selection of Kriel, and de Allende does not reflect form for club or country.
One of the clearest things to recognise in the Springboks play is that there is mass confusion in the minds of the players. Players have been told different things by different coaches. For the men on the pitch, it can be hard when you get one set of directions from the head coach, another from the forward’s coach, and another from the lineout coach.
This is part of why Coetzee eventually got sacked. There was too much discord between the various parts of the Springbok set up. If the whole coaching staff had been on the same page, Coetzee might’ve found himself in a more secure environment.
It is also why Rassie Erasmus became Director of Rugby in South Africa. His outstanding coaching and man-management skills make him valuable. It is also expected that his time in Munster will translate to the Boks.
All in all, Coetzee spent the entirety of his career as South African head coach bogged down by external forces. If he was in a more transparent and realistic environment, he could have been an excellent head coach.
Author: Andrew Weaver
My name is Andrew, I live in New York City, USA, and I play second and back row for Play Rugby USA. When I am not playing rugby, I’m drawing, or enjoying a good book. Thankfully, I was able to navigate through the other American sports and land on rugby.