JOHANNESBURG – Springbok coach Allister Coetzee fancies himself as a wine connoisseur of sorts, but his toughest challenge will be finding the perfect blend of winning rugby and improvement in playing style that will be palatable to most Bok fans on his squad’s four-Test tour of Europe.
Coetzee’s Springboks are still a blend in progress.
But they have already struck the right taste buds this year, with most of his players playing like grapes from the same vine, unlike last year’s sour vintage that lost every Test in Europe, including a first defeat to Italy.
This year is different, according to Coetzee, but it is almost inevitable that he and his side will again be judged by wins and how sweet those victories are made by the way the team explodes on the field, in the same way a sip of the best blend in the world would in the mouth.
The Boks start their tour with a clash against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday (7.30pm SA time kickoff), followed by a fourth Test meeting of the year against France in Paris (9.45pm), then the tricky, elephant-in-the room Test against Italy in Padova (3pm), before finishing off against Wales in Cardiff (4.30pm).
“We have tough games on tour, not just the opening one,” said Coetzee prior to the team’s departure on Friday.
“Italy will have massive confidence against us. If you look at how they played against England, they had them for about 68 minutes and that was at Twickenham.
“So these so-called minnows are not minnows anymore and on the day, if you don’t get it right, you can get beaten.
“All four games will be a hell of a challenge. We lost to Ireland last year, France will be much better this time and at home they will be difficult and tough to beat; and obviously Italy and Wales.
“We lost to three of those four last year, so it is a tough tour, but I’m pleased to say we’ve put in all the hard work.”
It has been in times of drought that Coetzee has probably learnt his biggest lessons as Springbok coach: Never go into a job without it being on your own terms, but most importantly, planning, time and preparation are a winning blend.
Coetzee had the luxury of time this year; proper planning with regards to training camps during the Super Rugby season, planning and managing the energy-sapping travel schedule of the Rugby Championship, and making sure the players are in peak condition for the last but vital leg of the season.
“The rough period obviously is the time to prepare a national team, so that’s a massive lesson for me, and you cannot not have training camps. How can you prepare for a Test match in two weeks, how can you? That is what happened last year,” he said.
“How do you build a team environment and establish a team culture within two weeks? If you get appointed in April, meet your management team in May, and you play a Test in June? This year was completely different.
“Obviously with the training camps that we’ve had, that is the reality of coaching at international level and that is the biggest lesson I have learnt.
“Making sure that there is cohesion in the management team, understanding that the coaching thing is integrating coaching philosophies, because that is how the game is played..”
It will be in that playing style and making sure all the elements from set-piece to attack and defence work in unison in order to attain the dominance that will yield the results Coetzee is so desperate to achieve to bury the disaster that was 2016.
“You’ve got to look at the mini-battles before you get to the outcome.
“The learnings from the past is you go over there with a southern-hemisphere mindset and you are playing in northern-hemisphere conditions, so you’ve got to win that battle first, be able to adapt.
“The players want to win the close games and that set-piece battle will be massive.
“That area (scrums), you saw in the Currie Cup final what it can do to a team.
“It doesn’t matter where you play, your psyche and how much you want to win the game; if you lose the scrum battle, it is like slow poison. So lineouts and scrums are going to be vital.
“Our kicking game has really been good this year. We’ve had most of our lineouts, especially our set-piece, in the opposition area, and that gave us a platform to attack and score tries from.
“Defence is another area we’ve really worked hard at. We have evolved as a team; in some games I think we were a bit passive off the lines, some games we were a bit narrow, and so there are a few things that we’ve worked on.
“I’m pleased that we have set out those goals and achieved a lot of them up until now with the conditioning, with the way we want to play and make sure we get the execution right.
“I know when the result is not there, but the other stuff is in place, then the other side is better on the day. Sometimes it happens that your best is not good enough, then I can live with that,” Coetzee said.