The curtain has come down on the Autumn Internationals and there can now be little doubt that the gap has closed between the north and south. However, the prevailing question is: Have the Northern Hemisphere teams strengthened or have the Southern sides weakened?
In my book, it’s a 60:40 split. Forty per cent is owing to much better cohesion from Northern Hemisphere teams and continuity in terms of selection under the guidance of astute coaches. However, 60 per cent is due to the fact that Southern Hemisphere rugby has waned. Harsh questions have to be asked around competition structures in the south, as well as eligibility of foreign-based players.
The current Super Rugby structure serves to undermine the south because it doesn’t encourage strength versus strength during the round-robin stages of the competition. Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that New Zealand and England, who pick personnel exclusively from within their borders, lie first and second on the World Rugby rankings.
In contrast, the two Southern Hemisphere teams who are off their best in terms of world status – Australia and South Africa – now select overseas-based players. In my view, if we insist that the players must be playing Super Rugby in South Africa in order to be selected for the Boks, we may be pleasantly surprised as to how many Springbok candidates will choose to stay and fight for a chance to wear the green and gold.
I expected it to prove a challenging tour for South Africa and that prediction came to pass.
We need to be realistic in terms of the limited impact a national coach can have on a team in such a short period of time. I thought that a victory over Italy would be the one shining light on an otherwise dark northern sojourn for the Springboks, but unfortunately that wasn’t meant to be. It’s actually quite frustrating and annoying to listen to the supposedly-informed critics who believe that one man is responsible for the current state South African rugby finds itself in.
I have to vehemently specify that the current malaise in our domestic game cannot be attributed exclusively to Allister Coetzee, who was appointed as head coach only in April. Calls for Coetzee to be fired are beyond preposterous. It is a completely emotional, unintelligent reaction to what has transpired.
If Coetzee was named coach in January it would have given him 15 weeks of Super Rugby to understand what the different franchise coaches were trying to do. It takes time to understand the various nuances. It’s about going to training sessions and formulating ideas, while watching combinations play week-in and week-out.
For too long, South African rugby and the various Super Rugby franchises have ignored, or at best underestimated, the power of cohesion and the competitive advantage that it affords. And it’s not just continuity at player level that is a vital part of team cohesion. The truth is that the Springboks can barely last four years without a complete overhaul of coaching staff.
Speculation is rife in the Republic that some of Coetzee’s assistants may be axed after overseeing eight defeats in a calendar year – the most by a South African team. Personally, I have no issue with Coetzee’s support staff but what let him down terribly was that he found himself with no real lieutenants who had come from the trenches. Namely, coaches who did week-in and week-out analysis of the opposition on a domestic front and were aware of trends.
Furthermore, the fact that there were three different Springbok defence coaches over 12 Tests comes down to poor planning by South African Rugby and you cannot point a finger at Coetzee. Too many voices will confuse players – there were six assistant coaches on the end-of-year tour – but, in such instances, the players also have to step up and take responsibility for a poor run of results.
While we cannot hide from the fact that Springbok rugby is at low point, highlighted by their first winless northern tour since 2002, I believe that there is no point in panicking now. Coetzee, right, would have learned valuable lessons from his first season at the national helm and gained intellectual property.
In all likelihood, when France travel to South Africa next June for a three-Test series, Coetzee will opt for tried-and-tested combinations forged over eight or more Super Rugby fixtures.
Quite simply, the longer a playing group stays together and the more time the spine of the team stays intact, the more cohesive they become. Statistics underscore the fact that the more cohesive you are as unit, the greater your opportunity for success.
The Springboks having been playing catch-up under Coetzee but once the group has spent time together, I’m hopeful that they can become a formidable unit and prove a point.
Gary Gold – therugbypaper