Sunday 25 February 2018

Springboks left reeling after Ireland expose some major flaws

Allister Coetzee became the first South African coach since John Williams to lose his first game in charge. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Allister Coetzee became the first South African coach since John Williams to lose his first game in charge. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Part of the reason that South Africa is ranked alongside New Zealand as the toughest place for a touring rugby team is the utter distaste the locals have for losing.

The Springboks know that every loss is treated like a death in the family by their passionate fans and that effect is amplified when the defeat takes place on home soil.

Throw in the fact that Ireland managed to do it for the first time when they were down to 14 men and you can begin to see the scenario facing new South Africa coach Allister Coetzee who yesterday faced the local press pack in a cramped, chilly conservatory attached to his team's opulent team base outside Johannesburg.

The former Stormers supremo's honeymoon period came to an end the moment JP Pietersen was bundled into touch by four Irish players in injury time on Saturday and, although the focus in these parts is largely centred on a general decline rather than any specific mistake coming down from the coaching box, he knows that to start off his tenure with a series defeat to Ireland would be a disaster.

The name of John Williams has been invoked frequently in the local press and it was a name that Coetzee didn't want to be associated with. He was the first man to coach the Springboks after they came out of sporting isolation and the last man to lose his first game in charge until Coetzee. Williams only lasted a year and since then Ian McIntosh, Kitch Christie, Andre Markgraaff, Carel du Plessis, Nick Mallett, Harry Viljoen, Rudolf Straeuli, Jake White, Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer have all got off to a winning start.

In that time, the Boks have won 74 per cent of their home Tests, winning two World Cups along the way.

So, Ireland's win has upset the apple-cart and, some believe, has exposed deep flaws in the game here.

On the ground, many fans blame the policy of 'transformation' which imposes racial quotas on the head coach and there was even calls for a boycott yesterday, but seasoned observers see this as an easy out and believe there has been a malaise in the production line.


That hasn't been helped by the exodus of talent to Europe where somewhere between 250 and 300 South Africans ply their trade.

Back in Ireland, many look at Super Rugby as the ultimate competition to prepare a team for the international game but Coetzee reckoned that the fast and loose nature of the competition worked against his team.

As well as the 'have a go' nature of the game, the expansion of the competition to 18 teams appears to have weakened it, although that didn't appear to affect New Zealand against Wales on Saturday.

"What you shouldn't be sucked into is the complete Super Rugby vibe, where it's almost like a feel-good scenario where we keep ball in hand and run it from everywhere," he said.

"Sometimes it looks on, but it isn't and you get shut down in your own half or you turn your ball over in your own half. Test rugby is a little different, the players have a full understanding now about what Test rugby is about.

"Credit to the Irish, they scrambled and they worked exceptionally hard when they were one guy short. But we allowed it to look really good."

Despite losing to an Ireland team who assumed control in the 22 minutes before CJ Stander was sent off and then remained courageous with ball in hand despite their numerical disadvantage might suggest Joe Schmidt's side still don't have the full respect of their opponents.

Certainly, Coetzee felt that his side had thrown away victory at Newlands and he added his name to the long list of opposition coaches who have grumbled about Schmidt's side after playing against him.

"The perception since the World Cup is the northern hemisphere might not be right up there with the four in the southern hemisphere," he said. "But they are actually playing closer to Test-match rugby compared to us in the Super Rugby environment.

"We talk about a ball in hand approach, but there are times when we have to kick it and that balance is the key. There's a place for the kicking game and if you look at how the Irish put us under pressure, we did dominate territory but by a small margin.

"But they weren't interested in playing. All they did was make it as difficult as possible for us to exit, just put it in behind us, turn us and we were bogged down in our own 22. They got a drop goal and a chip try and it was a very clever tactic and we didn't handle it well but we will be better this week."

It appears the way they'll go about that is by tightening up, which makes more sense when you look at the wet weather they trained in yesterday and the forecast for rain at the weekend.

The big boot of Morné Steyn has been sent for and the likelihood is that Ireland will be in for a battering at Ellis Park.

Yet, for all that they will bring an onslaught, a tight game in the rain won't faze Ireland.

It's their job to make Coetzee's life more difficult.

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