Mark Keohane, the bumptious South African rugby pundit, was at his aggressive best (or worst?) with his forthright comments about the appointment of Allister Coetzee as the new coach of the Springboks.
“Coetzee, for all his experience as Stormers head coach and Springboks assistant coach, does not rank among the ten best coaches in the world.”
“A second-rate administration has settled for second-rate coaching appointments.”
I believe that Coetzee’s record is hardly second-rate. He coached the Stormers to a lost Super Rugby final in 2010 to the Bulls, and made the semi-finals in the next two seasons.
Earlier, he coached the fabled (to my mind, anyway) Western Province to two Currie Cup titles.
He was assistant coach to Jake White when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup 2007.
In terms of available talent or lack of talent if you are in the Keohane camp, Coetzee has about the best record of any of the South African coaches currently plying their trade in South Africa and around the world.
Why not have an outsider, a non-South African coaching the Springboks?
A great rugby nation like South Africa should never even contemplate such a move. There has to be a determination that someone brought up in South Africa and its rugby experience needs to be the coach of the Springboks. The integrity of the Springboks culture demands this.
I supported the Robbie Deans appointment as the Wallaby coach. I believe, too, that the merits of his coaching stint out-weighted the demerits. But I would never support this experiment being repeated. And I remain critical of the Waratahs appointing Daryl Gibson, the former All Black, as their head coach on the grounds that he is denying a qualified Australian from holding a plum Australian rugby coaching job.
By going to an outside coach, and this applies too with the Super Rugby franchises, a concession is made that there are no native-born coaches capable of doing the job.
Once this slippery slope is created, coaching jobs in Super Rugby and for the Springboks (the issue under discussion) will become rather like those managers jobs in football that go to anyone whether the manager has any affiliation with the club or the nation concerned.
In the end, as with England football, the position is reached where no English manager ever gets the experience to be considered as the manager of England.
In rugby we are seeing what could happen in South Africa with British rugby where all of the British and Irish national teams are coached by New Zealanders and an Australian.
This might be considered fair enough in a British sporting culture that is conditioned by a football culture.
But it should not be considered good enough by the SARU, and it hasn’t been.
Allister Coetzee faces a number of problems, most of them none of his own making but all of them having some input from him.
Problem 1 concerns the dire legacy to South African rugby of the Jakeball method developed by Jake White to win the Rugby World Cup 2007.
There is an element of a Faustian pact with the devil about the Jakeball method. It undoubtedly was responsible for the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup 2007. But – and this is a crucial qualification – adherence to this method has virtually destroyed attacking rugby, rugby played with skill and speed, that used to be the hallmark of the Springboks in previous eras.
In 2007 Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach, stated that he was not prepared to coach his team to play rugby in the negative, perpetual box kicks, bash-it-up, play-for-penalties Jakeball style. He said he’d rather not win the Rugby World Cup tournament than give up the Total Rugby game he wanted the All Blacks to play.
The result of this courageous stand by Henry is that the All Blacks won the next two Rugby World Cup tournaments, in 2011 and 2015. The All Blacks, particularly, in the last four years have been the dominant side in world rugby, and the most watchable. And New Zealand Super Rugby teams have dominated that tournament, as well.
Coetzee has been a disciple of the Jakeball method. He needs to use the time he has as the Springboks coach to build on the undoubted strengths of South African rugby, its physicality, and add the polish and sparkle that Springbok sides used to have in destroying their opponents.
If he continues with the Springboks the grinding-out tactics he employed with the Stormers my fearless prediction is that the All Blacks, Wallabies and the Pumas will all start dominating his team.
Problem 2 involves the transformation requirement. But this problem could actually be helpful if used in a positive way by Coetzee.
Transformation has the target that must be hit, apparently, of at least half of the Springboks being players of colour within the next three years. The Springboks squad that won the bronze medal in Rugby World Cup 2015 had about a quarter of its members as players of colour.
Coetzee insists that the “uniqueness” of South African society and culture “can make us stronger.” If he really believes that, then this is a good thing for the Springboks.
I watch all the South African Super Rugby teams and I reckon that there is as much talent in South Africa as there is in New Zealand. The difference is that New Zealand coaches encourage flair, speed and attacking play. South African coaches, and Coetzee is a leading example of this negativity, positively discourage it.
There are many players of colour among the loose forwards and in every position of the back line in South Africa who should or could play with spirit and verve for the Springboks. So rather than the quota being a selection burden it could be, if an expansive game plan is developed, an engine to drive the Springboks into a new, great era.
Problem 3 is the decision by SARU and endorsed by Coetzee, unfortunately, to select players for the Springboks who are not playing in the Super Rugby tournament.
The problem with this policy is that it does not encourage the development or even the selection in some cases of young players of great potential ahead of seniors playing for their retirement bonus in Europe or Japan.
Duane Vermeulen, Bryan Habana, Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Louw are leading candidates for Springbok honours who are playing outside of South Africa.
It would be a tremendous boost to the local players if Coetzee stated that these players will only be considered for Springbok honours for a Rugby World Cup tournament.
My view is that players do not improve playing in Europe. As many critics have noted, the European clubs do not care about the international careers of their overseas players. They play them to a standstill and the point of physical exhaustion, and then continue to play them.
Even critics of southern hemisphere rugby like Brian Moore now concede that the game has been taken to a new level of fitness and skills, especially by the New Zealand teams, in the Super Rugby tournament and The Rugby Championship.
The dynamic play of the Lions has shown, or should have shown, the Springboks selectors and coach that South African players are capable of playing the expansive and attractive game when their coaches believe in that game and provide the systems for the players to be successful playing it.
The other important point here, too, is that if the national side is selected from players playing at home, the coaches have time to organise training camps to check on fitness levels and consider the play book and tactics.
Michael Cheika, for instance, has already had several camps with players he considers will make up his train-on squad for the Wallabies.
The All Blacks, typically, are much further advanced. They know that they don’t have to concern themselves with overseas players so the leadership group has already been selected and has got together to plot out the campaign against Wales.
I began this discussion about Allister Coetzee with a long quotation from Mark Keohone.
I believe that Keohane will be proved right. Coetzee is not a second rate coach. His record as a head coach, in fact, is better than Steve Hansen’s when he took over the All Blacks. But he will never emulate Hansen’s achievements.
Hansen had eight years under the tutelage of Graham Henry, with Rod Macqueen the most accomplished and innovative coach in the professional era. Under the teacher of The Master, Hansen learnt the secrets of Total Rugby.
Coetzee has spent his eight years after Rugby World Cup 2007 espousing and putting into practice the Jake White negative game. It seems an impossibility for Coetzee to suddenly convert to coaching a modern, expansive and trophy-winning game for the Springboks after his years with the Stormers.
Some other coach is going to have to drag the Springboks kicking and screaming into the 21st century in their rugby thinking.
The Springboks and South African are never going to be the dominating force they should be until the Curse of Jakeball is killed off.
I can’t see the complicit Coetzee as that killer of the Curse of Jakeball.