State of the Nation: South Africa

Date published: June 28 2016

With the June internationals now done and dusted, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, South Africa.

South Africa may have won their three-Test series against Ireland recently, but their performances would have left their head coach, Allister Coetzee, with more questions than answers.

There was plenty of excitement and optimism in South Africa when the Bok coach named his 31-man squad to take on Ireland with most Bok supporters agreeing with Coetzee’s selections.

But things went pear-shaped for the men in green and gold during the first Test in Cape Town as they suffered an unexpected defeat and in the second Test, in Johannesburg, only for some clever half-time substitutions – after they were trailing 3-19 – helping to avoid a first-ever series loss to a Home Nation on South African soil.

When appointed Coetzee spoke passionately about finding a balance between a conservative game-plan, where they play territory-based rugby, and an expansive one in which they run the ball more.

Coetzee of course employed the former style of play during his five-year stint as Stormers head coach and with his back against the wall, ahead of the final Test in Port Elizabeth, he reverted to type.

And although they managed to win clinch the series, Bok supporters will be worried about their team’s chances ahead of this year’s Rugby Championship as their side seldom showed creativity on attack against Joe Schmidt’s troops.

Although South Africa did well in the forward exchanges – especially their set-piece play – there’s plenty to work on in the back-line, which lacked plenty of spark on attack throughout the series against the Irish.

Although Coetzee deserves most of the flak he is getting for his side’s unimaginative play against Ireland – as the buck ultimately stops with him – it must also be remembered that the skill-set of the vast majority of South Africa’s professional back-line players are light years behind that of their counterparts in countries like New Zealand and Australia.

Losing the services of first-choice fly-half, and key decision-maker, Pat Lambie barely 20 minutes into the series was a setback, and although his replacement Elton Jantjies didn’t disgrace himself, he hardly set the world alight – something which he does regularly when allowed to play his natural, free-flowing game at Super Rugby level with the Lions.

South African rugby’s preoccupation with size and winning the collisions is to be expected in the forwards but this has sadly become the norm amongst the backs as well with someone like Damian de Allende, who played at inside centre position throughout the series against Ireland, preferring the direct route more often than not.

There were questions, in some quarters, over the leadership of the skipper Adriaan Strauss, with his critics pointing out that the added burden of captaincy has seen his game suffer, but Strauss has delivered solid albeit unspectacular playing performances against Ireland. It would therefore have been unfair to replace him as captain after just three Tests and Coetzee deserves credit for extending the Bulls’ stalwart’s tenure in the leadership role until the end of year.

It hasn’t just been doom and gloom for the Boks, however. The emergence of Faf de Klerk as first-choice scrum-half was like a breath of fresh air, who looked like a natural at Test level.

Other plus points were the performances of his Lions team-mates Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck, who also transferred their superb Super Rugby form to the international arena and that of the Stormers second row combination of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who look set to be the Boks’ first-choice locks for years to come.

It remains to be seen if the two-time world champions will improve during the upcoming Rugby Championship with Coetzee’s decision to back locally-based players over overseas-based players set to continue during that tournament.

What is worrying though is the level of the next batch of players coming through in the Republic, after below par performances from the South Africa ‘A’ side in their 2-0 series defeat against the England Saxons as well as from the Baby Boks, who had to be satisified with a fourth place finish at World Rugby’s U20 Championship in England.

Read the rest of our State of the Nation pieces following the June Tests right here.