Sunday 19 November 2017

Do-or-die tour has Coetzee walking a tightrope

South Africa head coach Allister Coetzee in thoughtful mood during a press conference yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
South Africa head coach Allister Coetzee in thoughtful mood during a press conference yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ever since he accepted the offer to become the Springboks coach, Allister Coetzee has been under scrutiny.

This tour of the northern hemisphere, which kicks off against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday, is being billed as a defining moment - some in his homeland are calling it the tour of redemption. High stakes indeed.

Erasmus: “I won’t be with the Springboks in November.
Erasmus: “I won’t be with the Springboks in November."

Whereas once upon a time a Springbok coach would have rocked into Dublin and declared that not one of the hosts' team would get into his side, as Jake White did in 2004, Coetzee is taking a different approach.

Perhaps it should be no surprise. The 'Boks' record in Dublin has been patchy since that meeting and Joe Schmidt's side are one place above their visitors in the World Rugby rankings.

Maybe Coetzee just saw an opportunity to heap a little pressure on someone else for once.

Intriguingly, the two sides are on course for a first World Cup meeting in the 2019 quarter-finals if things go to form.

Coetzee's mission is to still be in charge when that tournament rolls around.

Chosen over Rassie Erasmus to replace Heyneke Meyer after the 2015 World Cup, the 54-year-old has endured a tough time in charge.

For all that they lost to Japan, the team Coetzee inherited had finished third in the world but he had a rebuilding job on his hands as many were headed to Europe and Japan to make their fortune.

So, he was forced into a period of rebuilding in an environment where patience is short.

Even during transition, a win-rate of 43pc was never going to fly in a rugby-obsessed nation.

Last year's loss to Italy and this year's record 57-0 defeat to New Zealand in Albany have set alarm-bells ringing among an already disgruntled public.

This month, Erasmus returns to take over the reins of the SARU performance department and among his first jobs is to establish the way forward for the national team with 2019 in mind.

Many people in South Africa reckon that could include a change of coach and the rumour mill is predicting the departing Munster supremo could have himself in mind as a replacement.

Fans of the Irish province can attest to how accurate that rumour mill can be when it comes to the former 'Bok.

Whatever he's planning, there is no doubt of the importance of this window for Coetzee who endured a torturous month in Europe last season.

Erasmus's presence hovered over yesterday's media engagement at the 'Boks' team base in Stillorgan, with Coetzee giving a question over his involvement the short shrift. No confirmation was forthcoming as to whether he'll have any presence this week as he makes the transition from one job to another.

Last month he insisted he would be jetting back to South Africa and not aiding the 'Boks in their preparation for this game, but given his intimate knowledge of the Irish game it would seem an opportunity missed.

"I won't be with the Springboks in November, definitely not - I will definitely not be involved with the Springbok team," added Erasmus (pictured left).

"If Johann (van Graan) comes in - which I don't know the exact date - and doesn't want me here any more and I am actually in the way, then I will leave, but then I will go to South Africa and work."

Yesterday, Coetzee said he would not be engaging with Erasmus until the new year as they begin their working relationship and if that's the cast he'll want to go into that conversation with something positive to show.

Last year's November return of three Test losses and a draw against the Barbarians was a harrowing experience, but he believes they are in a better place now despite their difficult Rugby Championship.

"I was personally worried about our conditioning (last year) and this time around I don't have that sort of fear at all," he said.

"I think we understand that you cannot come here with that southern hemisphere mindset and try to play in the northern hemisphere, so we have to adapt."

Erasmus's appointment is not the only change behind the scenes.

In February, the experienced duo of Brendan Venter and Franco Smith were added to the ticket while attack coach Mzwandile Stick - a sevens specialist with little high-level coaching experience - was relegated to the U-20s.

They appeared to have turned the corner in June when they swept France, but the Rugby Championship has been difficult with two draws against Australia and a pair of very different losses to New Zealand undermining the two wins over Argentina.

The Albany shellacking was a major set-back, but the second performance against the All Blacks has given the tourists some hope that they can still live in elite company when they get things right.

This month, they face Ireland, France, Italy and Wales and have a chance to prove it.

Coetzee paid due deference to all four, but by labelling Ireland as 'Europe's All Blacks' he was effectively giving this week's opponents top billing.

"Our mindset is not about the end-of-year tour, it's all to build for next year," he said.

"Every championship we play, every Test we play, is about making sure we improve as a group and it's making sure that the playing process is followed towards 2019.

"And it's an important autumn series for us, to make sure that we follow the Test we played last against New Zealand, that's the standard basically.

"For us it's important because we have a huge respect for Ireland, they are a quality side and it's almost close to your All Blacks side in Europe.

"They have a great coaching staff, Joe is a great guy, a really good coach, and (Andy) Farrell his defence coach is really astute.

"So we've got to be at our best this weekend, we want to see constant improvement and the things we've done well, we've got to keep like that and also improve the other things we've worked on."

In the past, the 'Boks have struggled to cope with the European conditions at this time of year but Coetzee is confident his team will be ready.

"We've faced a few different weather conditions in the Rugby Championship. At this point in time the prediction is looking good for Saturday weather-wise," he said.

"The aerial game might not be important in Super Rugby but in the northern hemisphere you will face an aerial bombardment and we will have to deal with that.

"And we know how good Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are as prolific kickers of the ball and that is an area which they see as an attacking opportunity as well.

"The other big thing is the physicality. That is a given in this game but we have to be smart with our detail this weekend. They are quite an innovative side as well.

"Good running lines and defensively we will have to make sure that we can stop that momentum from all angles on the field. Obviously the referee interpretations will be crucial for us. In any Test you do lose momentum."

His focus is very much on the task at hand, but he'll be fully aware of the bigger picture too and the shadow of Erasmus looming large over the whole of November.

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