Where to now for the Boks?
Springbok fans will collectively wonder where to from here for Allister Coetzee as he and his team seek redemption on home soil against the Wallabies and the All Blacks in the coming weeks. The Boks have now lost three in a row on the road and two test matches at home. The Bok performances in all three defeats in Salta, Brisbane and Christ church were rooted in their inability to hold on to the ball. Handling errors, or soft moments, as it is often referred to, conspired against Coetzee and his team. The coach looked mildly exasperated following Saturday’s defeat against the All Blacks with quick answers and fixes seemingly out of reach. He has a fortnight to find the right mix and, thankfully, he has the Wallabies in Pretoria before he has the All Blacks in Durban. There is not much to gush about, but the coach found solace in the performance of the forwards. Coetzee pronounced himself happy with the effort of the pack. He believes the Bok set piece kept them competitive for the first hour of the match but that individual errors took the wind out of their sails. Coetzee said he did not want to “b re a k ” players by discarding them after poor performances, but stressed they needed to know that under-achievement carried consequences. He needs to be clear about the message he sends his players, but he knows too well that his options are limited. “I can only make changes if there is a better player to select,” he said after the 41-13defeat to the All Blacks. Coetzee has not backed off from making tough calls. He ordered Sikhumbuzo Notshe home on the eve of the test against Argentina in Nelspruit to work on his fitness. He jettisoned centre pairing Damiande Allende and Lionel Mapoe following disappointment in Salta. He has also cut J P Pietersen and Willie le Roux loose after they opted to play in England. Coetzee is, however, also trapped in an environment that is as challenging as it has ever been for the national coach. By comparison Nick Mallett, Rudolf Straeuli, Jake White and even Peter de Villiers had it easy. Coetzee is limited in the options available in his player base and he has a coaching staffthat was largely foisted upon him. His team’s defence needs urgent attention and they need a kicking coach. It is unlikely one will be installed before next year. Why they do not ask Naas Botha, the country’s most respected kicking high priest tohelp, is mystifying. Coetzee will not say so but he may feel trapped on both counts. He does, however, need to engage his employers. What has further complicated his task is that players in key decision-making positionscarry unwanted baggage. His captain Adriaan Strauss announced in the middle of the most taxing competition on the test scene that he will quit at the end of the year. Coetzee has committed to retaining Strauss if his form holds. Warren Whiteley plays under the spectre of Duane Vermeulen, Coetzee’s first choice No 8. Whiteley was wholehearted in his efforts against the All Blacks, but what happens when Vermeulen regains fitness? Coetzee is yet to settle on a centre pairing, while the same can be said at fullback where Johan Goosen has failed so seize the moment. His halfbacks, Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk, have not warmed to test rugby in the way many had anticipated, but the coach is limited in his options. Jantjies is a gifted player but he clearly has inner foibles that stand in the way of him delivering consistent performances. One New Zealand scribe described him as flaky as a croissant, and it is hard to argue the contrary. Jantjies, lest we forget, would not have been Coetzee’s first-choice fly half had Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie been available. He, like Whiteley, may also be playing while looking over their shoulder. Having Morne Steyn as his back up is as reassuring to him as it is to the average Bok fan. De Klerk, however, is the coach’s first choices crum half but he too has limitations at the highest level. At the perennially ball-in hand Lions his kicking game is hardly an area of focus but at test level it has to stand up to the highest scrutiny. The All Blacks’ Aaron Smith and T J Perenara hoof the ball with precision and purpose almost every time they are required to do so. Apart from Pollard and Lambie, Coetzee has also had to do without Vermeulen, tight heads Julian Redelinghuys and Frans Malherbe, and wing Ruan Combrinck. Coetzee may be limited in what he can do over the next fortnight. What he cannot afford to do is to be seen yielding to those limitations.