Boks gather power

Coet­zee has few chances left as team gets ready for France

CityPress - - Sport - SIMNIKIWE XABANISA sports@city­press.co.za

As in­ter­na­tional rugby sea­sons go, few will start as haz­ardously as the threat posed for Spring­bok coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee by the French tour. While this is his sec­ond year in charge, it still strangely feels like his first.

Thanks to the lim­ited time he will have had with the team by Satur­day’s first test, 2016’s legacy of re­sults (four wins in 12 games) that a coach can only hope to for­get, plus a new cap­tain in War­ren White­ley, Coet­zee could be for­given for feel­ing like he is be­gin­ning again.

But the one thing that will re­mind him that this is not his first dig is the pres­sure he will be un­der for the du­ra­tion of the three­test series – which starts at Lof­tus Vers­feld on Satur­day, re­sumes in Dur­ban a week later and con­cludes in Johannesburg.

The ru­mour mill has in­sisted since the be­gin­ning of the year that, if Coet­zee fails to beat the French com­pre­hen­sively in this series, he will be shown the door by SA Rugby. Off­set­ting that is his ac­qui­si­tion of two as­sis­tant coaches: Franco Smith and Bren­dan Ven­ter.

The in­flu­ence of the lat­ter is al­ready ap­par­ent in the se­lec­tion of over­seas­based veter­ans Frans Steyn and loose­for­ward Duane Ver­meulen.

The for­mer is there to shore up the team de­fen­sively in that first chan­nel and to solve the exit strat­egy is­sues the Boks had with his how­itzer boot. The lat­ter is set to pro­vide the go-for­ward drive so lack­ing last year, de­spite up­set­ting the coach­ing staff through crit­i­cal com­ments while side­lined in France.

Al­though White­ley’s ap­point­ment as the 58th Bok cap­tain raises ques­tions about whether he’s au­to­mat­i­cally in the start­ing XV and if he be­longs at test level, it was bold not to go with pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment and rather side with the un­der­stated Lions cap­tain’s deeds, in­stead of his lack of dra­matic words.

In a strange way, the fact that some peo­ple had is­sues with a few of the selections – Damian de Al­lende in­stead of Ruan Com­brinck, plus the omis­sion of Lionel Mapoe from the orig­i­nal squad – is promis­ing sim­ply be­cause one can’t trust a coach who se­lects a team ev­ery­one agrees with.

That said, those plans have al­ready been dis­rupted, with Ver­meulen, who seems to have been ear­marked for the blind­side flank role, only ar­riv­ing in the coun­try this week af­ter play­ing in the French Top 14 fi­nal yes­ter­day.

Steyn’s ar­rival dur­ing the week has off­set that, but the im­pres­sive Lukhanyo Am’s in­jury (and his re­place­ment by Mapoe – a player one gets the im­pres­sion Coet­zee doesn’t rate) means that what­ever plans they had for him will have to wait.

As un­fair as ex­pec­ta­tions of a com­pre­hen­sive series win over the French are, Coet­zee and co can learn from the vis­i­tors’ ap­proach to the tour.

Guy Novès’ France – who have played some di­rec­tion­less rugby re­cently but have shown im­prove­ment by fin­ish­ing third in the Six Na­tions be­hind Eng­land and Ire­land – have set them­selves a sim­ple enough tar­get, ac­cord­ing to for­wards coach Yan­nick Bru.

“Af­ter the dis­ap­point­ments of the past two sea­sons, we de­cided to play pos­i­tive rugby, keep the ball and cre­ate space,” he said. “I think we’re on the way. We have to give fans the feel­ing that we de­serve to be sup­ported. I think that’s the main thing we’ve achieved so far.

“But we’re still be­hind the best teams in the world rank­ings. We know we need to im­prove still, so we are work­ing on the ra­tio be­tween op­por­tu­ni­ties we cre­ate and op­por­tu­ni­ties we take. Play­ing against South Africa is a good op­por­tu­nity to see if we’ve im­proved.”

When South African rugby fans clam­oured for an ap­proach im­bued with sim­i­larly pos­i­tive in­tent, Coet­zee com­mit­ted to what he called “win­ning rugby”, an ex­am­ple of which was a par­tic­u­larly dreary win over Aus­tralia in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship at Lof­tus last year.

Asked if this was a good time to play the Boks, Bru wasn’t bit­ing: “There’s never a good time to play the Spring­boks. They’ve had a dif­fi­cult last sea­son, but we ex­pect a very tough series.

“We have some am­bi­tion, but we have hu­mil­ity be­cause we know how far we are from be­ing among the top coun­tries in the world.”

PHOTO: AUBREY KGAKATSI / BACKPAGEPIX

TOUGH TIME Spring­bok coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee

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