Coetzee: ‘Overcoming challenges is in our DNA’

Date published: November 3 2016

A rough few months in his new role have not been enough to stop Allister Coetzee from smiling, or even going as far to crack a joke. 

"We understand that people are looking from outside at these "Springboks, poor Springboks"," he said with a grin to close Thursday's press conference in London.

"It's great for us. It cements this team and we will probably do our talking on the field.

"I'm nervous that these guys will do so well this weekend that I will be battling with my selection going forward! They have really put in the hard yards."

Now that close to a month has past since South Africa's thumping at the hands of the All Blacks, combined with fresh faces and fresh surroundings too at their leafy London base, their head coach appears to have relaxed a little.

Not that doing so means he is shying away from the mountain of challenges currently facing the world's fourth-ranked side – issues that run deeper than what happens on the field.

Duane Vermeulen's soundbite earlier this week to the Daily Telegraph that rugby in South Africa "is just chaos… everyone has their own agendas" might be the most honest an international player has been with the media for some time.

For this week, at least in terms of on-field matters, the pressure is off. Facing the Barbarians at Wembley has allowed Coetzee to rotate and refresh, with promising results – a back-line fully capable of catching fire given enough possession, anchored around the power of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and direction of Pat Lambie. Sergeal Petersen, the uncapped Cheetah, can fly on the wing.

The seven who line up behind the scrum might even be a unit worth sticking with moving forward to the next Rugby World Cup. Back in the present South Africa have won four out of nine Tests this year, with three to come against England, Italy and Wales.

Coetzee is settling into his boots after what he describes as a rushed start. Patience from the South African public regarding the team's fortunes however is an area he still has to grapple with.

"Unfortunately I cannot control that. I can control what we did in the last two weeks and give it our best shot," he explained.

"If you talk to the players they will tell you how hard they have worked and that there is a plan, and challenges that they are looking forward to.

"I was appointed in March, very late, which was quite a challenge for me. It was always going to be tough to get things going a couple of months before the first incoming series. Where we are now, we have improved a hell of a lot as a management team.

"Jacques Nienaber left recently after the Irish series which was a setback and we had to plug holes, because no one was available and the Super Rugby coaches were busy with the tournament. Speaking to those coaches now, there is a complete buy-in, and we now have Franco Smit on board and JP Ferreira from the Lions."

Fleshing out the coaching staff should make a tough job simpler, but if Coetzee didn't want the challenge of rebuilding a crumbling giant then he would not have accepted the role in the first place. 

Regardless of what Coetzee said earlier this week, the aura around the Springboks actually has gone. England and Wales will heavily fancy their chances to defeat South Africa over the next few weeks, and that approach is far from gung-ho.

Coetzee's job now rather than insisting that the Springboks are still feared, is to actually make them feared again.

On the field and off it, South Africa rugby faces a unique set of issues, and now as in the past Coetzee expects his country to work together to overcome them. Last month's Indaba, bringing together the nation's coaches and experts, was a first step.

"One thing is for sure, our country has got its own challenges. We see it more like a great opportunity than a problem. This is who we are, that's our DNA. It has been a nation that has always stood together during tough times, and with the challenges that we are facing with players overseas, there will be a way and a will to get it right and turn it around," he said.

"Our Indaba was the start of that, realising that this is reality, that we have actually stagnated over the last 21 years since 1995.

"Every Springbok coach starts at nought, and he is hoping to get it right in a four-year cycle. I have full calloaboration with the franchise coaches and we're working well together to address certain issues and to overcome those with their input.

"If you look at our system, we are completely different to New Zealand and Australia. We have the most players abroad. So we had a hard look with our Super Rugby coaches to get some uniformity in a lot of ways. I'm positive going forward from here on."

That level of positivity might be about to take a few more hits as Coetzee tries to jump-start a turnaround. Judging by his mood this week, it will take plenty of those setbacks to break him down.

by Ben Coles