Do the Springboks need a foreign coach?

Date published: November 26 2015

South Africa v Argentina - Bronze Final: Rugby World Cup 2015

Heyneke Meyer is a nice guy, but he has failed in his mandate as Springbok coach. It's time for change – but who should take over?

The departures of Allister Coetzee from Newlands and Frans Ludeke from Loftus Versfeld suggest that the South African rugby fraternity is ready for a cultural evolution. 

However, any such change would require a strong figurehead, a national coach who is able to use the Springboks to set the example of how the game should be played across the country. 

Does such a man exist in the Republic? 

Despite his wishes for a contract extension, Meyer's time appears to be up. Premature reports before the World Cup suggested that he had already signed up for four more years, but in the context of overwhelming public demand for change, it now seems extremely unlikely that the SARU Execo will ratify any such deal (if it exists). 

Speculation is rife at the moment but the South Africa public will know the incumbent coach's fate before Christmas. SARU's General Council will meet on December 11 when they will deliver their verdict, which is likely to be released on Monday the 14th.

When the former Bulls mentor was named as the Springbok coach in 2012, he insisted he should be judged on results, and results alone. Despite a third-place finish at the World Cup, the cold truth is the Boks' record during the Meyer era has been well below what he would have set out as acceptable. 

South African rugby must be measured primarily against its chief rivals, New Zealand and Australia. In 15 Tests against their SANZAR foes, Meyer's men won just five games (a win rate of just 33%). In eight games against the All Blacks, they were victorious just once. The trophy cabinet door has rusted shut. 

Historic losses to Argentina and Japan pushed the bus to the edge of the cliff with the only means of salvation being World Cup victory, which never really looked on the cards. 

When assessing Meyer's tenure, most disappointing of all is the stagnation in the way the Springboks play the game, which has been stuck in a time warp. Painfully predictable is the only way to describe it.

Meyer had us all seduced back in 2013 when he spoke of how he wanted to evolve the Springbok style, saying that brute physicality and a tactical kicking game were no longer enough to beat the best teams in the world.

He spoke of how the Boks needed to think more, and better, and of how they were striving for a balanced, complete gameplan. Playmakers like Willie le Roux and Handre Pollard were given the room to use their talents, it seemed as if 2007 hangover was finally over and series of breath-taking games against the All Blacks had fans salivating for more. The future looked rosy if only the upward curve of progress could be continued.

But by the end of 2014, the milk began to turn sour and Meyer started turning his wagons around as the pressure for silverware grew – brave new frontiers would have to wait. By mid-2015, Meyer was telling us that he had made a mistake by trying to please the fans and that the Boks were reverting to type. 

The contradictions started piling up almost as high as the press conference cliches. The speeches about 'doing the country proud' were never backed up by suggestions that tactically the Boks were going to do anything new. It was all about chest thumping and muscle flexing. Where was the thinking?

As I sat at Twickenham and watched the Boks go through the motions in their RWC semi-final, the result seemed so inevitable. It was like watching a bad movie on repeat as – once again – the Boks offered nothing with ball in hand. They put New Zealand under pressure by charging at them with the intensity of men possessed for an hour before they simply ran out of steam – as any side made of human beings would. The pattern of countless games against the New Zealand simply played itself out again as the Kiwis ruled the final quarter. 

In my mind it's clear that South Africa must move on in terms of coaching personnel but also in mindset and culture. The current dearth of respected, well-experienced South African coaches is a major stumbling block to change however.

Of South Africa's six Super Rugby franchises, only one is set to start 2016 with the same head coach as in 2015 (if you consider that Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold has been lumped with the hands-on coaching duties almost against his best intentions).  

Johan Ackermann has done a sterling job of leading the Lions to the Currie Cup title, building on the foundations laid by John Mitchell, but he does not yet have the experience required for the country's top job.

South Africa's unique political climate does not help either, and the appointment of another white Afrikaner to the green and gold blazer is likely to cause more trouble than it's worth. 

England have taken a bold step in appointing a foreign coach to bring in a fresh perspective. Eddie Jones will have the luxury of being able to operate without the political baggage that would have accompanied any coach appointed from within.

Imagine what a Robbie Deans-like figure could do with South Africa's player resources, using the kind of pragmatic approach that made his Crusaders multiple Super Rugby champions. While Deans is not a realistic option,  ex-Sharks boss and current Hurricanes forwards coach John Plumtree's name has been thrown around.

Alas, I fear South African pride will be too great to swallow and no outsider is likely to coach the Boks in the foreseeable future. 

It appears the most likely scenario now is for Coetzee to return from his Japanese exile and work in tandem with SARU's High Performance General Manager, Rassie Erasmus. 

Given Coetzee's track record at the Stormers, it's hard to see Jake White's former assistant coach change his stripes though. 

South Africa's rugby evolution may just have to wait a little longer.

By Ross Hastie

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