JOHANNESBURG – Independent Media rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen has highlighted the five biggest challenges facing Springbok coach Allister Coetzee ahead of the three-match Test series against France.
One of Coetzee’s biggest “mistakes” in 2016 is that he regularly got his selections wrong. When he started his tenure in the first Test against Ireland, the only Lions players in the starting team were Faf de Klerk and Lionel Mapoe.
Later on, Francois Hougaard would make an appearance on the wing, Willem Alberts would get called up from nowhere and Morne Steyn all of a sudden found himself thrust into the limelight again, asked to save the day. When the Boks lost 57-15 to New Zealand in Durban, still only two Lions were in the starting side – Warren Whiteley and De Klerk. By the last Test of the season, against Wales, the Boks had a new centre pairing in Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter, Jamba Ulengo was on the right wing, and the new flanks were Nizaam Carr and Uzair Cassiem.
Coetzee has now selected 10 Lions in his 31-man squad, but he must play them.
Allow Whiteley and Jantjies to shine
In naming Whiteley as his skipper and stating that the Lions No 8 is the best man for the job and most in-form player for the position, Coetzee must now back him, and the way he plays the game.
Whiteley is not a Duane Vermeulen; he is his own man with his own unique style of play and should be allowed to play that way and make the calls on the field as he sees fit. Coetzee must let the Boks play the Lions way, especially because he’s backed so many players from the franchise to be a part of his squad. It’s no use picking these men – players who like to run with the ball, play expansively – and then forcing them to play a different style. And that goes especially for flyhalf Elton Jantjies. If the Lions No 10 can do the job against the best in the business in Super Rugby, then there is no reason why he can’t do it at Test level ... he just needs to be allowed to play his way. Coetzee must allow him to do his thing; that’s why he was picked, after all, isn’t it? Back Jantjies, give him confidence and trust him ... only then will he be able to deliver.
Get that defence organised
There are much greater challenges that lie ahead for the Boks, who’ll ask many more questions than France do, but the visitors to South Africa will be the perfect dress rehearsal for what is to come.
The French love running with the ball, too, they spread it wide, they do the unorthodox and they love counter-attacking from deep. The simple fact is you just don’t know what you’re going to get from Les Bleus. They will run at the Boks and they will test them, that is for sure. Defensively Coetzee’s men are in for a proper examination and, hopefully, they pass the test. They were not too clever last season in conceding several soft tries, but it can only be hoped that with the addition of Brendan Venter things improve dramatically. Coetzee and Co must get the Boks switched on defensively, whatever system they decide to use.
Speed up the play
So much has been said and written about the style or brand of rugby the Boks want to play, or aim to play, or did play last year ... but as we look to get the new season underway no one actually knows what we can expect to see from Coetzee’s men in 2017.
Will they adopt the Lions style? Will they be far more conservative than expected? Or will it be a bit of both? Whatever is decided on by the coaching team and the leadership group, one can only hope that the Boks show plenty of innovation and speed in their game. The Boks have for too long talked about catching up to the All Blacks, but perhaps it is time for them to set their own pace ... and that means quickening their game with tap-penalties, quick line-outs, clever kicks, innovative moves; anything that will keep the opposition guessing. One hopes that new attack coach Franco Smith will add vision and skills to the Boks’ attacking game, that after 80 minutes one has to sit back, take a deep breath and say, "wow, that was exciting stuff".
Make a winning start
Coetzee will be desperate to avoid a repeat of last year’s shocking start ... from which he and his team never really recovered. The Boks lost the opening Test against Ireland 26-20 and struggled through the rest of the series.
All sorts of reasons were given for the poor showing, but none of those issues will have been part of the build-up to Saturday’s Test. Now he must win, and do it well. France are a decent young side, but they shouldn’t come close to scaring the Boks. This is an opportunity to make a new start, correct the wrongs of 2017, and for Coetzee to show he can learn and fix, and is the right man for the job.