Thought 10 : The Springbok Coaching Squad

After months of speculation, reams of newsprint and pages and pages of electronic comment, the not-so-secret is out of the bag.

Allister Coetzee is the bravest man in the rugby universe and has accepted the job of Springbok Coach.

His appointment was announced by SARU boss Oregan Hoskins at a media briefing yesterday. The entire Bok management team was announced at the same time.

The full Springbok Team Management is:

Head coach: Allister Coetzee

Assistant coach (backline): Mzwandile Stick

Assistant coach (forwards): Johann van Graan

Team manager: Ian Schwartz

Team doctor: Dr Jerome Mampane / Dr Conrad von Hagen (Southern Kings)

Strength and Conditioning coach: Dr Warren Adams

Physiotherapist: Vivian Verwant

Physiotherapist: Tanu Pillay

Logistics manager: JJ Fredericks

Media manager: Rayaan Adriaanse

PR manager: Annelee Murray

At first glance this is a very experienced management team, with just one exception, rookie Mzwandile Stick.

Johann van Graan continues as forward coach, the job he had under Heyneke Meyer, although he no longer has Pieter de Villiers as his scrum coach assistant.

Ian Schwartz carries on as team manager, again a role he filled under Meyer.

Vivian Verwant, JJ Fredricks, Rayaan Adriaanse, and Annelee Murray all continue in their respective back-room roles as before, while Tanu Pillay, joins Verwant as an additional Physio, after sterling service as Physiotherapist with the Springbok Women’s and the Sevens Women’s teams for a number of years.

Dr Jerome Mampane moves up to the senior team after serving as team doctor for the Junior Springboks over the past three years.

The Springboks’ strength and conditioning will fall under Dr Warren Adams who has been involved with various national squads for some years.

There are some holes in this line-up. I see no Defence coach, no Kicking coach, no Scrum coach, no Lineout specialist, no Ruck and Maul specialist, no Video Analyst, and no Skills specialist. Perhaps Coetzee gets to chose his own people for these positions, perhaps SARU has decided that they are unnecessary extra salaries that they do not want to pay? Who knows?

At the outset I have to emphasise that Mzwandile Stick was a superb rugby player and an absolute pleasure to watch when on the field. However, his appointment as the Springbok back line coach does raise some eyebrows. After just one year’s experience coaching at under 19 level with the Eastern Province U/19 squad, Stick joins the coaching staff despite having been an out-and-out Sevens specialist for most of his playing career. I am skeptical about his ability at this level as he is completely untested and unproven at any senior level of the game. I am hoping that he succeeds, and that he will bring some really attack minded flair to the set-up.

Some Questions:

If I take a good look at this team, other than Stick, they are a solid, experienced management squad, and seem well equipped for the job that lies ahead. I have just one or two small questions: Did Allister Coetzee pick his own management team, or was the team imposed on him by SARU? Was there some political involvement in the appointment of Stick? Why has SARU waited until April to announce an appointment that the world had identified back in November last year?

Allister Coetzee

Let me give my view on the choice of Allister Coetzee as Bok coach. Four years ago he was mooted as an alternative to Heyneke Meyer, but Meyer was seen as some kind of deity descending from heaven to save South African rugby and was the choice of almost every media hack, rugby pundit, and commentator active in this country. How wrong they were!

Coetzee’s candidacy was pooh-poohed on the basis that he had never won a Super Rugby title and that his coaching record was not a “winning record” – once again, how wrong they were!

Coetzee briefly coached the EP Kings when they were known, for some obscure reason, as the Mighty Elephants; he assisted at the Sharks; he then assisted Jake White with the Springboks when they won the 2007 World Cup; he coached Western Province to two Currie Cup titles and the Stormers to the top the South African Super Rugby log twice, making to a Super Rugby final and finishing as runner’s up once. He left the Stormers after six years in charge to go and coach Kobe Steel in Japan.

Perhaps his biggest failing as a coach was a focus on rock solid defence first, and scoring tries second, but of all the South African candidates available for the job of South African coach, he has far and away the best record!

He is a very good coach, who establishes a excellent rapport with his players while avoiding controversy, sidestepping rugby politics and provincial factions. He has shown a penchant for staying below the radar and avoiding pronouncements and swagger at media briefings, unlike some of his predecessors in the Bok hot seat. He is an astute judge of players and the game, and thoroughly deserves an opportunity at the top level of the game.

Many have made loud noises about the Lion’s Johan Ackermann as a possible Bok coach. I think his time will come, but at the moment he has just one Currie Cup title on his record sheet, and nothing more. Yes, he has built a formidable Lions outfit and will probably guide them to some serious honours as the next couple of years pass, but he is not ready for the Bok job yet!

Lest we forget that Coetzee had been recommended for the role by the SA Rugby High Performance Committee, which includes another media favorite for the job of Bok coach, certain Rassie Erasmus. Their recommendation was accepted by the Executive Council and the General Council.

Allister Coetzee has had less than 24 hours in the job, and already the media are on the bandwagon!

Almost every rugby based website, media site, and the printed dailies are on his case. The debate is all about whether he is the right man for the job. Many bewail his focus on defence and the lack of tries scored by his Stormers outfit during his reign. Others point to the fact that he was Jake White’s assistant in 2007 and is inevitably and irredeemably a JakeBall convert.

Rugby365 were quick off the mark, running an on-line poll “Is Allister Coetzee’s Appointment Good For SA Rugby?” With 55,33% of those responding saying “NO”…

There are positive comments too. Simnikiwe Xabanisa argues on Vodacomrugby.co.za that Coetzee is the most experienced man for the job, although I do question his suggesting that Nick Mallett, Brendon Venter, and Rassie Erasmus have been out of the job for too long and are thus somehow inexperienced!

Jon Cardinelli of SARugbymag is more focused on the issues Coetzee needs to address before the Irish arrive in the midyear. He suggests that his biggest challenge is to get his Management Team to work together and makes much of their relative inexperience. Sorry Jon, but you do need to take a look at that management team again, except for Stick, they are all well salted in their jobs! He talks about the issues of Transformation, Captaincy, Overseas Players, and the serious Time Constraints the delay in his appointment by SARU has placed on his shoulders.

The Honorable Minister of Sport and Champion of the Free Buffett Dinner and Gravy Train ticketholder, Fikile Mbalula has stepped in to welcome his appointment while making some threatening noises about at least half the Bok team being black and half white. I wonder when he will make the same noises about our national soccer team?

The reality of the Bok coaching job is that it is probably the most difficult position in world rugby. The first pitfall has to be the political insistence on “transformation” in South African Rugby, which is now somehow foisted upon the national coach. The coach is forced to focus on a nonsensical top down approach. Somehow, in the weird world that is South Africa, transformation becomes the job of the coach and not the administrators!

The sad reality is that the administrators and politicians, whether they like it or not, are compromising the ability of the Springboks to field their best team. Selecting a professional sports team should be about ability, not colour.

South Africa remains a complex country and there are still many roads to travel and much water must still pass under the bridges of our country before we can say that the country has become a truly integrated rainbow nation. The emotive race card is a favourite tactic employed whenever a politician is under scrutiny for non-performance or corruption, it serves to distract attention from his or her own failings. This will not change for the foreseeable future, despite 20 years of true democratic rule having passed.

It is also true that racism is still very much alive amongst various sectors of society. We have had the ugly of both extremes on display in recent months, from a white woman referring to blacks on the beach as monkeys, to signs painted at Wits University and tee-shirts worn by a non-students participating in student protests at UCT, both suggesting that the whites must get *ucked! The extremists are vocal!

A sports transformation policy that focuses on race instead of merit and does not address the issue of transformation from the bottom up is a sure recipe for disaster. We need to see the game develop at the very grass roots level in order to see true transformation at the top of our game. This cannot be addressed in a top down approach.

As it stands at the moment, the SA rugby transformation policy appears to be a form of reverse racism. It’s a minefield that the national coach has to navigate on a daily basis.

Back on the rugby field, Allister Coetzee and his assistants Johann van Graan and Mzwandile Stick have less than two months to prepare the Boks for a three-test series against Ireland in June. No rugby coach should be presented with such a challenge on taking up the job for the first time. It smacks of being set up to fail. This is the result of the squabbling, prevarication and secrecy of SA Rugby administrators and their delay in appointing the coach.

Lest we forget: The South African rugby public is extremely demanding and totally unforgiving in every aspect and level of the game. If a team fails, the call for a guillotining of the coach is an instantaneous response. The media is at the coach’s throat faster than you can blink – there is no honeymoon period in South African rugby. And then there is the dark side; when they should be supporting their national coach, the rugby politicians draw their knives for a quick back-stabbing session. This is the way of South African rugby!

As I see it at the moment, Allister Coetzee is a very very brave man. He should be given maximum support and every resource he could ask for, but that will not happen. Not in South Africa! The poor fellow is on a hiding to nothing!