Peter Bruce Columnist
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MARTY MELVILLE
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MARTY MELVILLE

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Not many readers of this column will remember the Battle of Boet Erasmus. It was July 13, 1974. I was in Port Elizabeth with my father, waiting for the right moment to tell him that I had dropped out of architecture at the then University of Natal in Durban.

We’d driven from Umtata, where we both were born and raised, for the third test in what was proving to be a tense tour by the British and Irish Lions. They’d won the first two tests. The mighty Springboks didn’t seems to have an answer to them. They were incredibly strong in the scrum and their backs ran like the wind. And they ran straight.

Boet Erasmus, the stadium, is no more. But I remember the stand behind the poles on my right was reserved for blacks only, all of whom seemed to be supporting the Lions. At the bottom, on the grass, at least 30 policemen with dogs patrolled this part of the ground.

Dogs or not, those blacks were in for a treat. I remember the Lions tripping out onto the field like kids in a school play. They all looked pink and fragile. When the Boks came onto the field you could almost feel the earth shake, so big and strong did they look. Hell, we’re talking Jan Ellis, Polla Fourie, Moaner van Heerden, Piston van Wyk and Hannes Marais here. How could they possibly lose?

The game I saw remains one of the dirtiest test matches ever played. It is famous for it. The black stand to my right was in ecstasy, the policemen with their dogs below distraught as the Lions not only knocked the hell out of the Boks in a string of punch-ups, but won handsomely too — 26-9 and that was when a try got you only three points, not five. We were hammered and lost the series. I kept my university news from my dad until I’d found a job at a newspaper.

Watching Ireland demolish the Springboks in Dublin on Saturday night 43 years later was a very different experience. I had no belief we would win. We had been lulled into a false sense of security about our rugby by a near win against New Zealand in Cape Town a few weeks ago but that was the result mainly of an inspired performance from a few forwards and the fact that the All Blacks were missing a string of stars.

The decline of the standard of our rugby matters. It matters because it is a sport we were genuinely world leaders in. It meant kids wanted to play the game, and students. There’s a huge infrastructure below the Boks, from schools, through communities, through universities and clubs and franchises, that supports rugby. There are rich sponsors for the teams and when they play well the Springboks, like no other team across South African sport, make a measurable impact on the country.

So the decline of rugby is a serious concern. We have enough problems. We don’t need this one.

How we ended up with Allister Coetzee as coach is a mystery to me. The SA Rugby Union, the sclerotic thing that runs the Springboks, waited almost six months to confirm him in the job. Why so long? There is no evidence they were looking anywhere else. After coach Heyneke Meyer lost to Japan in his opening match in the last rugby World Cup, Coetzee was always the successor.

It seemed to me that that was mainly because he was black. Sure he’d coached the Stormers and had a certain pedigree. But Saru must have been hoping a black coach could bring along more black players. It hasn’t really worked that way.

The way you make rugby a black game in SA (it will become one anyway, by sheer weight of our demographics) is by teaching kids to play it and love it when they are young. You build rugby fields at rural schools and maintain the fields. It’s on those fields that kids learn to play; to run with a ball and think at the same time; to sidestep, to pass and catch. By the time a player comes into the sights of a Springbok coach it is too late to do much with his skills. You measure the coach by whom he picks and the results those picks achieve.

In Coetzee’s case that amounts to very little. He obviously has to go. After Ireland, his team has travelled to France, whom they play on Saturday. There are by now so many South Africans playing rugby in France that you could probably pick a team from them that would bury Coetzee’s Springboks.

Obviously, those South Africans are there for the money. There is simply no possibility of retaining talented sportsmen or women in SA on rand salaries. And while most of those playing abroad now may be white, their black colleagues will soon join them.

New Zealand may be able to afford a policy under which they do not pick players for the All Blacks who ply their trade abroad, but they have the luxury of depth. We don’t, which makes the coach’s picks critical. However, Coetzee has some strange ideas. I remember watching the winger, Ruan Combrinck, literally run over an Irish wing when they toured here last year. Today Combrinck isn’t even in the team. Why? He is by far the form South African wing of the moment.

I give up. We’re in a coaching agony. Handré Pollard remains the hope for many of a flyhalf for the future. But he isn’t. Pollard’s natty when he’s a few metres from an opponent’s tryline, but force his pack back and make him play in his own half and he is very ordinary. Equally, the current starter at flyhalf, Elton Jantjies, is just not of international standard. Ross Cronje, Coetzee’s scrumhalf, is an embarrassment and should not be allowed on the field again. What happened to Cobus Reinach or Faf de Klerk? What genius thought they weren’t good enough to play for their country.

And where are Jan Serfontein and Gio Aplon? Where’s Duane Vermeulen? Where are Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe? I’m so irritated I could spit. Much more of Coetzee and Siya Kolisi is going to become the first black captain of the Springboks and have no-one worthy of the jersey playing under him.

And, of course, I would not be true to myself if I didn’t ask why Pat Lambie is not in the frame as flyhalf. He is the only playing South African flyhalf who can defend, run, kick and distribute at an international level. Pollard, who can’t kick or defend a channel, should be his inside centre. And there are a raft of fabulous centres, wings, fullbacks and loose forwards we could play but don’t. I feel not a thing for Coetzee. I hope he goes fast,

But even then, something bigger, surely, has to happen to our rugby. It needs restructuring. Left to its own devices, it’ll do nothing. But, between them, business and the state could force rugby in the right direction. We need a system that much more closely resembles what the All Blacks have — a highly centralised approach where the central body decides which national payers should play or be rested on any weekend and which coaches the clubs should use and what the coaches need to be coaching.

What we have here now is a mess of egos of mainly old men where every provincial or regional union fights its own corner. There is no working together for the national good. For the Springboks. The return to Saru of former Springbok Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby (not the coach mind) this month may be a turning point. Coetzee said before leaving for the European tour he didn’t know what Erasmus’s job was going to be. I suspect he’ll soon have an answer. Erasmus will be one of a select few to pick Coetzee’s replacement.

Let’s hope that whoever does replace the hapless Coetzee is not a South African. Any South African coach is going to quickly get trapped in the racial past of the game. Rather let’s find a New Zealander (as have Ireland and Wales and until very recently Australia and Scotland). There’s no shame in it. New Zealanders grow up playing a style of rugby everyone should try to emulate. And the only way to do that is to let them teach us. That’s how knowledge gets transferred. Through actual people, not videos.

A Kiwi coach would not only do our rugby the world of good but would probably quicken the pace of transformation, rather than slow it down. The All Black squad on any one day is a demographic marvel.

A lot of thoughtful rugby writers abroad are beginning to write SA off. Our politics, they argue, has finally caught up with our rugby. Or the other way around. I don’t think so. Yes, there have been some poor selections of black players who were not of the required standard for the Springboks but there have been many more rotten selections of white players too. But it would be a waste of breath to start arguing about black or white players. Selection to the Springboks should be on merit and I would far more trust a Kiwi coach to make those decisions than any South African.

Here by the way, is the sort of sentimental piece that is beginning to pop up all over the world where rugby is played. It’s a requiem to Springbok rugby, that old white Afrikaner powerhouse of yore. What the writers don’t know is just how much talent we have here and how blind our coaches and unions are to it. 

I remember John Eales, I think the best Australian captain of the past 50 years, being asked, on his retirement, which country he would most like to coach. Without a moment’s hesitation he said “South Africa”. It was the sheer number of people playing the game here, everywhere, that attracted him. I don’t know what Eales does for a living now and I realise he isn’t a New Zealander, but boy we could do with a guy like him coaching the Springboks.


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