Op-Ed: A 2017 Springbok Wish List

By Daniel Gallan 20 December 2016

Since this is the festive season, we’ve compiled a short wish list for the changes we’d like to see in South African rugby. By DANIEL GALLAN.

It’s unanimous: 2016 has been a pretty rubbish year. Rampant social and political divisions, growing geo-political angst, a global economic slide and a laundry list of beloved celebrity deaths have all contributed to 12 months that many of us will be happy to see the back of.

While you flip 2016 the bird, spare a thought for Springbok fans. Not only have they had to endure what was already a challenging time, but they have been forced to witness what was unquestionably the worst year for the once mighty Boks.

But since this is the festive season, and we’re hopeless romantics who can’t help but harbour positive thoughts through this trying period, we have compiled a short wish list for the changes we’d like to see in South African rugby.

We’ve tried to be as realistic as possible and only included things that could conceivably happen. A society that is geared towards fielding a wholly representative team, a stronger rand keeping our best talents on these shores, fans refusing to blame “transformation” every time the team loses; these are just some of the presents that would ordinarily top our list. We’d all like a pony from Santa, but that’s just not going to happen.

Even if everything below were to miraculously click into gear there would still be a long way to go before the New Zealand (and increasingly English) hegemony is broken. But if the powers that be were to check our list and implement these changes, we all would be having a happy new year in 2017.

No more Mr Nice Guy

Assuming that the cash-strapped SARU is not prepared to fork out the reported R13-million to axe their beleaguered Bok coach, Allister Coetzee is here to stay.

While he has bemoaned certain ingrained structural deficiencies that make his job more difficult, there are certain variables that are within his control that he can rectify.

He can start with getting tough.

By all accounts he is a really nice guy and his demeanour with the press is mostly filled with smiles and assurances. This will not suffice any longer and if Coetzee is going to win back what little faith the public had in him, he must harden up.

Four wins from 12 matches should be leaving the coach in a blind, spitting rage. He should be tearing lumps out of his players and his coaches. When he’s done, he should be saving a jug full of venom for himself.

Enough rhetoric. We don’t want to hear that you’ll try harder next time. This is the Springboks and only the best should be tolerated. We are all rightly livid with the Boks’ performances this year and this babe-in-the-woods routine smacks of incompetence – and it needs to end now.

A coherent game plan

Say what you want about Heyneke Meyer’s outdated game plan but at least you knew what it was. Coetzee’s Boks have been aimless all year and if they expect us to buy tickets to watch them, they had better come up with something that we can understand.

I’m not saying it has to be groundbreaking, I’m not even saying it has to be a strategy that sweeps away the competition. All I’m saying is that it has to be coherent.

Arguably the most frustrating site this year was watching the Boks in the lineout – a usually powerful weapon – against England at Twickenham. After kicking the ball out, not one forward was lifted in the air on two consecutive England throws in the first half. Why kick it out if you’re not going to compete? Mixed messages or an aimless objective; something is not right.

Give us the opportunity to point to the Boks on game day and say, “Ah, I see what they’re trying to do there.” All great teams have an identity that defines them. That does not mean that they are one-dimensional, but a strong sense of self helps individuals coalesce around a unified ethos. It’s high time the Boks understand who and what they are.

A captain that inspires confidence (and will stick around)

Coetzee’s greatest mistake to date has been his poor handling of the captaincy debacle. The second Adriaan Strauss announced his retirement from international rugby at the end of the season, his name should have been struck from the list of potential captains.

In what universe is an organisation expected to run smoothly when the commitment of the leader is questionable?

Duane Vermeulen is the obvious choice. At his peak he rivalled Kieran Read as the world’s best eighth man. His power on defence and with ball in hand was sorely missed by the Boks this year.

Vermeulen has stated his dissatisfaction with the structural issues that plague the game in this country, but that only reinforces his claim to the job. It shows he is not afraid to stick his neck out and say what he really feels – a sure sign of strong leadership.

Pick your best team, stick with combinations, have faith

The Springboks failed to pick the same team for consecutive matches once this year. A whopping 46 players started the 12 games under Coetzee. Clearly he does not know who his best XV are.

More worryingly, important combinations such as the half back pairing, the loose forwards and the back three have been unsettled. Coetzee needs to show faith in his selections and trust that the players he has picked will come right.

Of course, injuries, international sojourns and loss of form all play a role in team selections, but when the public are unable to state with any accuracy what Coetzee’s ideal side looks like, there is a problem.

Faith in a coach inspires belief in players. It tells them that their position is safe even if they have a poor game. No one can be expected to put in a world class performance with the Sword of Damacles hanging over their head.

We need to free our young players from the burdens of pressure. We need to encourage them to go out and play their natural game. Constant chopping and changing only adds to the weight of the emblem on their chest.

The public (and media) must lower expectations

This does not mean we must all accept that what is happening to our beloved Boks is normal or acceptable. Nor does it mean that we will never again see the Webb Ellis lifted by a man in green and gold. But it does mean that if we do not temper our jingoism, we will create a world where stop-gap solutions will be repeated in order to avoid a backlash at home.

The Springboks need time to sort things out. They need time to identify what has led to this problem. When Morne Steyn was selected to play against Australia, it was blatant what had happened. The pressure to win the game immediately in front of Coetzee had tarnished whatever long-term plan he may have had.

Sure, Steyn kicked all his side’s points in the 18-10 victory, but at what cost? A fleeting win against a mediocre opponent was made a priority thanks to a public that had been baying for blood. The record reverse a week later against the All Blacks only heightened the backwards step made against the Aussies. 

We need to understand that this is a work in progress that is not going to be fixed within the next 12 months. Coetzee, his coaching staff and the players need to convince us that 2019 is the goal. Everything before then should be seen as part of the process. DM

Photo: Springboks official team picture during the 2016 The Castle Lager Rugby Championship Team Photo Kashmir Resturant at Umhlanga South Africa on 07 October 2016 ©Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix


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