Coetzee needs to give his fans something to work with
Years ago, Kitch Christie got roped into the kind of disagreement one couldn’t avoid if one worked for Louis Luyt.
With South Africa hosting the 1995 World Cup and the team not looking like much early in the build-up that year, the then SA Rugby Football Union president thought he’d add his two cents’ worth by suggesting Christie coax Naas Botha out of retirement and into his Springbok squad.
After a heated argument, Christie is said to have got up, symbolically thrown his car keys on the table and told Luyt something along these lines: “Doc, if you want to drive this bus, this is where I get off.”
Having stood up to the biggest bully South African rugby has known, Christie went on to win all 14 of his matches in charge of the Boks and, of course, the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Besides reportedly being a sadist in training, Christie believed in three things: the players had to call him Coach or Mr Christie; dividing his squad into a starting XV and replacements; and that the first two names on the team sheet were the tight heads and the reserve tight head.
Looking at Allister Coetzee’s Boks, it’s difficult to see a similar clarity of purpose about what he wants to do with them and how.
Coetzee was recruited to achieve three things: to nudge South Africa’s notoriously antiquated playing pattern along into modern times; to transform the team to SA Rugby’s 50% target; and to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
While he may say the Promised Land is three years away, there is little about the team that suggests this is the foundation from which to reach that goal.
Defence, which is supposed to be a dead giveaway of a team with desire and discipline, is a shambles; nobody has a clue what Coetzee’s starting XV is; and the playing pattern remains that impossible thing in life, half-pregnant.
Most head coaches normally take the role of defence coach so that players can be accountable to them. Having three defence coaches in less than six months suggests it’s either been passed around like a hot potato or seen allocated as an afterthought.
Coetzee has been in the job for seven months, yet we don’t know small but revealing things like who his ideal captain is, what he likes in a fly half, whether he believes in an open-side flanker or not, and so on.
This is all a bit problematic because, in the South African context, the mandate he has been given means he has been appointed as an agent for change.
But few things scream that there is a lack of change more than a kickand-chase game that hasn’t consistently worked since 2009, the inexplicable return of the likes of Willem Alberts and Morné Steyn, and the continued awarding of token three-minute caps to black players.
If he is to fulfil the role envisaged for him, Coetzee needs the resilience and attitude that saw him play the game on the wrong side of the tracks, but end up coaching it on the right side.
Changing how the Springbok team plays and looks, and returning them to the winner’s circle at the World Cup will not be a negotiated settlement. As the one presumably driving this bus, Coetzee needs to drag everyone, even if they are kicking and screaming, to the Promised Land and get rid of the dial tone that has masquerading as his leadership.
The language coming out of the team – where they talk about physicality as a game plan and bang on about still having their aura – is worrying.
In a game in which physical courage is a currency, physicality is one of the givens in the quest to win, and auras are engendered by winning, not losing, streaks.
As someone who would like to see South Africa play dynamic, winning rugby that is inclusive of everyone who lives in this country, I’m not sorry for wanting Coetzee to succeed.
But the time has come for him to give his confused supporters a sign that there’s a plan other than just waiting for injured players to return, a new captain and, hopefully, better luck next year.