DURBAN - The winds of change will almost certainly blow through SA Rugby headquarters in December when the review of Allister Coetzee’s year is undertaken, and if the embattled Springbok coach indeed resigns or is sacked, whereto from there?
The options in South Africa are not vast. In fact, they are pretty meagre in terms of a South African coach who is at the right stage of his career to right the listing Springbok ship and sail forth confidently to the 2019 World Cup and beyond.
The Boks need a dynamic coach who is clear about the direction he wants to take the SA game, particularly in playing style. And the way the Boks need to proceed is evident all around them in the rugby world. We have seen all the evidence we need in the intriguing series of matches that have unfolded in the northern hemisphere this month involving the touring Rugby Championship teams.
The rugby played by Ireland, Scotland, England and, to a degree, Wales has shown how much the home unions have improved since the 2015 World Cup. Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, said this after his team came within a few inches of Murrayfield turf of losing to Scotland for the first time: “They (the northern hemisphere) are catching us up. There is no question about it and we have to take that on board and plan accordingly.”
Why have the likes of Scotland and Ireland improved so dramatically? It is surely no co-incidence that the Kiwi influence has played a huge role. New Zealand have for so long been light years ahead in every facet of rugby and one of their biggest exports is quality coaches. A cynic might say that it is almost like Kiwi coaches are being sent out into the world to improve the quality of opposition that the All Blacks will face!
Maybe it is time South Africa had some of that stuff! Why not?
Look at Scotland, for example. They were deadbeats until Kiwi Vern Cotter took over in 2014. By the time he left in June of this year, the Scotland team was transformed. Structures and a playing style had been put in place and current coach Gregor Townsend has carried on the good work.
Ireland have been on a similar trajectory since New Zealander Joe Schmidt took charge in 2013.
These head coaches have not been shy to employ New Zealanders in key positions on their support staff. John Plumtree, for example, did wonders with the Ireland forwards when he was with Schmidt.
Waikato’s Warren Gatland is an institution in Wales, where he has enjoyed considerable success and has, of course, beaten the All Blacks at their own game as coach of the British and Irish Lions.
Let’s look at the options available to the South Africa Rugby Union. As we have said, the larder is starkly bare. Unless you consider the New Zealander coaching the Bulls...
John Mitchell ticks a number of boxes and would do an excellent ambulance job with the Boks and even take them onwards to Japan.
The former All Blacks coach is quintessentially Kiwi and the teams he has coached have had the All Blacks blueprint all over them, be it the Western Force, the Lions and now, lately, the Blue Bulls.
It is a minor miracle that Mitchell had the hapless, directionless Bulls of Super Rugby playing entertaining, running rugby in the Currie Cup after having been in charge for such a short period.
We should not forget that Johan Ackermann did his coaching apprenticeship under Mitchell at the Lions, and the thrilling brand of rugby the Johannesburgers have played in recent years speaks for itself.
It is true that Mitchell had his fall-outs with the players of the Force and the Lions but he is on record as saying that he has learned considerably from errors he might have made in terms of man management.
Moreover, Mitchell has lived in South Africa since 2010. That means seven years of familiarising himself with the realities of sport in this country and getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of South African rugby.
Ackermann? His time will come. He should be allowed to continue soaking up knowledge at Gloucester. Right now, though, SA Rugby need look no further that Mitchell.