Allister Coetzee had just presided over statistically the worst Springbok season in history, using an outdated game plan and insisting on picking some players who proved on a weekly basis that they can’t cut it at Test level.
But, in the immediate aftermath of the 27-13 defeat to Wales in Cardiff, Coetzee looked positively glowing in a BBC TV interview. He even pulled off a few smiles (perhaps those were nervous smiles?), but then produced an astoundingly inappropriate line: “And hopefully, this is the start of a new beginning for South African rugby.”
A new beginning? Twelve Tests later? The one that was supposed to start in June against Ireland? So, in Coetzee’s world, never mind that the Springboks had just been through the biggest nightmare in history – we’ll just start over and try again. As if nothing has happened.
And he was at it again upon arrival in Johannesburg on Monday. “Sometimes things have got to go as low as they can before they can go upwards again,” Coetzee was reported as saying.
Why did it take Coetzee until the last game of the year, when all hope was gone and the players demoralised, for him to bring in new blood? He has also said in other media interviews over the last few days that if he could start over, he would’ve picked many of the younger players who faced Wales in the three-Test series against Ireland in June, and started afresh following last year’s Rugby World Cup and with the view to the 2019 edition.
But wasn’t that his brief? He chose not to go down that path, sticking to a conservative game plan despite talking about embracing a more attacking one, and picking players who were out of form and some of them out of position as well.
One of the worst calls Coetzee arguably made was to bring in Johan Goosen at fullback. Yes, Willie le Roux was inconsistent in the Irish series, but then why not replace him with someone who has played there regularly? Instead, he brought in a guy who is an outside centre for a French club and was a flyhalf previously.
There were many others, such as Francois Hougaard at wing and Pieter-Steph du Toit at flank.
There was very little to be positive about for the Springboks this year. Even the Irish series win was down to a second-half rescue job at Ellis Park, while the third Test was too close for comfort as well. The Boks were fortunate to beat Argentina in Nelspruit as well, and only a desperate, forgettable effort saw them hold off the Wallabies through Morné Steyn’s boot at Loftus.
The other major questionable decision by Coetzee was to convince Adriaan Strauss to play Test rugby for another year, and then make him the captain on top of it. Apart from his lineout-throwing, Strauss does very little else on the rugby field these days, compared to when he challenged Bismarck du Plessis for the No 2 jersey with those rampaging runs and turnovers at the breakdowns.
The Bulls skipper didn’t want to be there, and it showed in the performances on the field and in terms of the captaincy. Why would the players be inspired by someone who won’t be around in future?
And then we haven’t even got to the ultimate guide in judging the Bok coach – results. Losing eight out of 12 Tests, including defeats to Argentina and Italy, is not not acceptable for any Bok coach.
If there had been evidence of growth in the game plan, bringing through new stars, giving more opportunities to players of colour – just any kind of progress – then Coetzee’s tenure so far may have been looked at slightly differently.
But there has been none of that.
Yes, Coetzee was only officially appointed in April, and had some of his coaching staff foisted on him by SA Rugby. But the Springboks and South African rugby couldn’t afford to waste 12 Test matches.
Of course Coetzee cannot be blamed for the “bigger picture” mess than the game finds itself in at the moment.
But he picked the Bok team, and decided on their tactics, and the result was a 33 percent win rate. There must be consequences for that…