PASS­ING THE TEST

Al­lis­ter Coet­zee pushes Boks over the gain line

Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - By KHANYISO TSHWAKU

The South African rugby pub­lic has seen many shades of Spring­bok coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee in his pre­vi­ous roles as a World Cup-win­ning as­sis­tant coach, Cur­rie Cup­win­ning Western Province boss and the fail­ing Su­per Rugby Stormers men­tor.

Un­like his pre­de­ces­sor Heyneke Meyer, who was com­bustible ma­te­rial in the coach­ing box only to strait­jacket his way through his me­dia en­gage­ments, the 54year-old teacher from Gra­ham­stown seems to roll with the cam­era punches in any given sit­u­a­tion.

The Coet­zee in the coach­ing box is the still one who cel­e­brates when the need arises and buries his face in his hands when the axe of de­feat falls. He is the same one who in­ter­acts with the pub­lic with an ear-to-ear grin. It would be stretch­ing it to say he’s the sec­ond-most an­i­mated coach the Spring­boks have had since the highly ed­u­cated and util­i­tar­ian John Wil­liams held the reins as the first post-iso­la­tion coach.

The ge­nial Peter de Vil­liers was a spe­cial breed dur­ing his three-year ten­ure, and one South African rugby may not wit­ness in the near fu­ture.

Coet­zee doesn’t try to be con­fronta­tional or rock the boat, but a rea­son­ably good 2017 has al­lowed him a sure-foot­ed­ness that was ab­sent last year. Yes­ter­day the Boks were in ac­tion against Ire­land in Dublin.

It came with the ter­ri­tory of start­ing the job in April last year af­ter Meyer va­cated the po­si­tion at the end of the un­suc­cess­ful 2015 Rugby World Cup so­journ in Eng­land. Draw­ing a blank He had two months in which to pre­pare a test team for what was go­ing to be a de­mand­ing sea­son, and the re­sults showed.

His Spring­bok side won only four matches out of 12; a dis­mal record pock-marked by his­toric de­feats by Ire­land in Cape Town and Italy in Florence.

There was also the un­for­get­table Dur­ban de­ba­cle in the form of a 57-15 home record drub­bing at the hands of the All Blacks on Oc­to­ber 7 2016.

That ham­mer­ing left him and his team in the dire po­si­tion of trav­el­ling to Europe with one leg cut and one arm hang­ing by a ten­don as Eng­land, Wales and Italy loomed large.

It came as no sur­prise that the Boks drew a blank on that tour.

A year on, Coet­zee is in a far bet­ter space; some­thing af­forded him by this year’s run of five wins and two draws from nine tests.

As ex­pected, it was the All Blacks who blot­ted that copy book, with wins in Al­bany (57-0) and Cape Town (25-24).

The Coet­zee of 2017, with a twin­kle in his eye but who’s sel­dom lack­ing a sting­ing re­sponse, is a far cry from the hunched, fight­ing-from-the-cor­ner 2016 ver­sion who was buf­feted by storms from all di­rec­tions.

The Al­bany an­ni­hi­la­tion will for­ever stand out as a sore thumb in Coet­zee’s ten­ure, re­gard­less of what he achieves in the fu­ture. But in the con­text of a year in which he was fi­nally able to find his feet, the worst is seem­ingly over for him for now.

The im­por­tance of the ‘T-word’

“The rough pe­riod was the time in which to pre­pare the na­tional team and that was the big les­son. You can’t not have time to pre­pare. How can you pre­pare for a test match in only two weeks? That’s what hap­pened last year. How do you build a team en­vi­ron­ment within two weeks, along with a team cul­ture?

“If you get ap­pointed in April, meet your man­age­ment team in May and play tests in June, what chance do you have? This year was com­pletely dif­fer­ent and the plan­ning was ex­e­cuted very well,” Coet­zee said.

“I learnt the realities of coach­ing at the high­est level and one of them is the ne­ces­sity to have co­he­sion in your coach­ing team and the abil­ity to have in­te­gra­tion in the coach­ing setup. You can’t have more of the other and less of this, and vice versa. We now have great coach­ing syn­ergy and all the coaches have bought into that.”

One of the ideals of Coet­zee’s coach­ing team is trans­for­ma­tion. The “T-word” will fol­low the Spring­boks wher­ever they go and that’s un­der­stand­able.

It should be re­mem­bered that, in his play­ing days, Coet­zee was de­nied an op­por­tu­nity to play for the Spring­boks be­cause of his ex­cess melanin.

When “uni­fi­ca­tion” fi­nally came round in 1992, the Bok boat had just sailed for the nippy scrumhalf who played for the non­ra­cial South African Rugby Union in the late 1980s and early ’90s while rep­re­sent­ing Eastern Province at Cur­rie Cup and Su­per 10 level un­til the mid-’90s.

Black coaches al­ways have that ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion to prove them­selves be­cause they are of­ten judged on skin colour be­fore cre­den­tials.

It was the same with Coet­zee when he took over the Spring­boks and was sec­ondguessed and com­pared with his pre­de­ces­sor.

The in­ner strength gath­ered from his coach­ing stint in the fickle Western Province rugby setup has seem­ingly equipped him for the tri­als and tribu­la­tions that come with be­ing Spring­bok coach.

It’s al­ways been clear that the job is seen

How can you pre­pare for a test match in only two weeks? That’s what hap­pened last year

to be tougher than Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s, but Coet­zee seems to know what he needs to do.

Mak­ing SA proud

In the face of fall­ing crowd at­ten­dances in the Cur­rie Cup and the Su­per Rugby tour­na­ment across three con­ti­nents, and a lack of faith in the Spring­bok brand, Coet­zee may be the poster boy for in­clu­siv­ity in a sys­tem that has di­rectly and in­di­rectly been a by-word for priv­i­lege and ex­clu­siv­ity.

“My sole job here is to trans­form this team in a way that all South Africans can be proud of Spring­bok rugby and not just Spring­bok rugby, a suc­cess­ful Spring­bok rugby brand and team.

“It’s not be­cause it’s a hope or an is­sue but I have done it with Western Province where I won Cur­rie Cups with six play­ers of colour start­ing and still hav­ing play­ers on the bench.

“When we won the Su­per Rugby con­fer­ence tro­phy, it was the same. It’s not some­thing I wish and hope for. I know it’s an im­per­a­tive like any busi­ness im­per­a­tive. This is an im­per­a­tive and I’ll do it with all the in­tegrity in the world,” Coet­zee said.

“I’m not go­ing to say any­thing about my pre­de­ces­sors and I’ll do the right thing and one of those is giv­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to more play­ers in this coun­try who are good enough to play for South Africa.

“Some­times peo­ple stand this side and they don’t make the ef­fort to see what’s in front here. They just stand on one side and look and that’s the only an­gle they’ve got.” A bridge too far Find­ing the right com­pass as a Spring­bok coach has been some­thing that’s eluded most of the 11 men who came be­fore Coet­zee.

In his 2013 book, The Poi­soned Chal­ice: The Rise and Fall of Post-Iso­la­tion Spring­bok Coaches,

vet­eran rugby jour­nal­ist Gavin Rich de­scribes how Bok coaches start out in their po­si­tion with high ideals and plans be­fore “Mad Coach Dis­ease” sets in and changes ev­ery­thing about them.

This has nor­mally been aligned with the rea­son­ably good starts the coaches have be­fore the dreaded “sec­ond-sea­son syn­drome” kicks in and brings them back down to Earth.

The uni­verse has worked dif­fer­ently for Coet­zee, as an in­ad­e­quate be­gin­ning to his ten­ure has been fol­lowed up by a de­cent sea­son de­spite Steve Hansen’s All Blacks be­ing a bridge too far.

He also seems to have a plan to get the play­ers to un­der­stand what it means to rep­re­sent South Africa.

In the con­text of the player ex­o­dus that has led to more than 300 pro­fes­sional rugby play­ers from these shores go­ing to play abroad, it’s an im­por­tant fac­tor.

Strength in di­ver­sity

Coet­zee ac­knowl­edged that South Africa’s di­ver­sity could one day be the bedrock of the game’s strength once it has been ad­e­quately tapped into.

“Firstly, our di­ver­sity in this coun­try should be our strength, that’s how I feel about it and it is. I see the value in it and it is a strength. The why is the first ques­tion. What is the pur­pose for you to play for the Spring­boks? Is it be­cause you want the jersey and say, ja you’re a Spring­bok?

“The why is the most im­por­tant be­cause you need to get the play­ers to un­der­stand why they are here, and that is in place now. They are here to play and to rep­re­sent an en­tire na­tion. This team un­der­stands that more than any­thing,” Coet­zee said.

“There’s the who and I know who I want here, and the what. The play­ers know what to do and they know when they’re here, they flip­ping work hard, chase hard and train hard. There’s no one I can’t train for two ses­sions a day. All I need now is the how to put in place the plan for 2019 and that’s what we’re start­ing to put in place and get­ting the con­ti­nu­ity in place. How­ever, if the other fac­tors are not in place, then you can’t get off the ground.

“I feel that I’m on the right track now.”

All I need now is to put in place the plan for 2019 and that’s what we’re start­ing to put in place and get­ting the con­ti­nu­ity in place . . . I feel that I’m on the right track now

Pic­ture: Moeletsi Mabe

RUCK AND ROLL Spring­bok coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee says he is put­ting to­gether a squad all South Africans can be proud of.

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