The new Springbok coach will be under intense scrutiny during this month's series against Ireland as transformation takes centre stage once more. NICK MALLETT, one of his predecessors in the job, puts his cards on the table...
South Africa are at a crossroads. Not only has Allister Coetzee succeeded Heyneke Meyer as head coach but the remnants of the 2007 World Cup winning team has all but gone, with Leicester signing JP Pietersen the only strand linking that celebrated squad with the 31-strong group preparing to take on Ireland in a three-Test series.
The pressure to select non-white players has never been higher as SARU and the government ramp up the transformation agenda that arguably dragged its feet under Meyer. Former Stormers coach Coetzee’s first squad contains 12 non-whites (38%) and that must rise to 50% by the 2019 World Cup or else there will be no official backing for South Africa’s 2023 World Cup bid.
The quota system has disconcerted many but here former Springbok coach Nick Mallett explains why he thinks South Africa are going down the right road…
“The South Africa coaching job is very different to the rest of the world and that’s why Allister Coetzee faces a unique challenge.
In New Zealand a head coach would be charged with making them the best team in the world and winning a World Cup but in South Africa the key performance indicators are not just success on the field but furthering the transformation principles that run throughout business, society, education and sport. The Springbok team needs to be acceptable to the majority of South Africans and that’s something that has slowly developed since 1995.
There’s been a lot of frustration with having, say, a couple of black wings and a black prop while the rest of the team is white, and the sports minister (Fikile Mbalula) and the SARU executive have placed a high premium on bringing through non-white players able to perform.
That requirement has intensified now that schools have become properly integrated and talented black players are coming through the system. When I took South Africa at the 1999 World Cup, there were only four black players in Super Rugby, all of them wingers. Now the U19s, U21s and Super Rugby sides are properly integrated and the difficulty of increasing non-white numbers (in the Springboks team) isn’t so stark.
Historically, 25 schools in South Africa provide 90% of the Springboks, but the Afrikaans and private schools are now recruiting black players at 13, 14, 15 and the first XVs are integrated. For example, I watched Paul Roos play Grey High, two government schools, and about half the players were black or of mixed race. If you go to a rural school where the facilities aren’t good and there’s no coach, it’s hard to shine but now you might get a scholarship to a private school.
Over the last five years there’s been a real move towards finding talent, and Allister has been at the forefront of that in the Western Cape. He recruited players like Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni and Juan de Jongh and the Western Cape has a very integrated support base. When the Stormers (now under Robbie Fleck) played the Lions recently, eight of the XV were non-white.
Allister has tremendous understanding of South Africa’s sensitivities and I’m very, very positive about his appointment. He hasn’t got the job been because of his colour but because he’s got more experience than the other Super Rugby head coaches. Under him, the Stormers finished as top South African franchise in three of his five years and reached a Super Rugby final and two semi-finals.
He’ll encourage a different style of rugby to what we saw under Heyneke Meyer. At the World Cup, we had no attacking strategy beyond a kick chase or big forwards running off the nine. People are tired of that crash-bash rugby and even if they had beaten New Zealand (in the semi-final) something had to change.
At the World Cup, we had no attacking strategy beyond a kick chase or big forwards running off the nine. People are tired of that crash-bash rugby
There was frustration, especially in the black fraternity, that Meyer wouldn’t pick small players, that his style of rugby mitigated against small, fleet-footed, stepping players. Every time there was an injury, the player was replaced by another big Afrikaans player. Meyer wasn’t picking them from a racial point of view but from a size point of view, but we needed more varied attack. Allister understands that you can’t go with an 80kg wing against Julian Savea but you’ve got to expose Savea’s comparative lack of agility.
A different brand of rugby wouldn’t have won us the game against New Zealand in the wet at Twickenham, but South Africa lack variety and New Zealand’s kicking game was so much better than ours anyway. On a wet and windy day you have to kick but on a nice dry day fans get frustrated seeing South Africa charge the ball up with one-out runners.
In the third-place match, Meyer gave Ruan Pienaar 77 minutes and brought on Rudy Paige, the mixed-race scrum-half, for the last three minutes. This for a match that doesn’t matter too much and in which South Africa led 16-0 at half-time. Three minutes! It was seen as a real insult by the black fraternity, a humiliation, as if to say, ‘I have such little confidence in you’. That was insensitive and really accelerated Meyer’s demise.
Had he picked Paige and South Africa had lost the game, he would still have got more credit with the public than he did by winning the game.
So South Africa needs Allister Coetzee. He understands the need to give non-white players an opportunity but will make players feel they’re selected on merit.
The key is positive messages. Take de Jongh, the Stormers centre: he may not have the power of a 115kg Afrikaans player but his tackle count is outstanding and you can’t beat his stats for beating defenders. So you tell him, ‘I’m picking you for your strong points.’
The same with Paige. Ruan Pienaar may be a magnificent kicker and tactician used to northern hemisphere conditions, but Paige is quicker to the breakdown and has a quicker pass, and that makes a big difference to back-line attack.
If you live in this country you must abide by the laws, with BE (Black Economic) compliancy that requires 50% of management and workers to be non-white. There’s a huge effort being made to get blacks into the economy after 80 years of exclusion.
Allister has been asked to have 50% black players in his squad by 2019, a rule that already applies to national junior teams. It’s a target and you won’t get rapped over the fingers if you don’t meet it; there are going to be exceptions, but the government and SARU want to see a genuine willingness to give non-white players the opportunity to play.
Some people say the 50% quota will drive white South Africans away to Europe but there are already at least 350 South African players there and it’s not the quota system but money that makes them go. With the rand devalued against the euro, pound and yen, players can earn four times as much in Europe.
Allister isn’t going to go 50:50 from the start, that is a 2019 objective. If he gets half-a-dozen non-white players in his starting XV against Ireland he’ll have done incredibly well.
But if he doesn’t consistently pick black players he’ll get a call from his employers. It’s a change of mindset that the government and SARU are hoping for.”
South Africa squad for Tests v Ireland on 11 June (Cape Town), 18 June (Johannesburg) and 25 June (Port Elizabeth)
Backs: Garth April (Sharks), Ruan Combrinck (Lions), Damian de Allende (Stormers), Faf de Klerk (Lions), Nic Groom (Stormers), Elton Jantjies (Lions), Jesse Kriel (Bulls), Pat Lambie, Willie le Roux (both Sharks), Lionel Mapoe (Lions), Lwazi Mvovo (Sharks), Rudy Paige (Bulls), JP Pietersen (Sharks), Jan Serfontein (Bulls).
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Forwards: Lood de Jager (Cheetahs), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth (both Stormers), Steven Kitshoff (Bordeaux Begles), Siya Kolisi (Stormers), Jaco Kriel (Lions), Francois Louw (Bath), Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi (both Stormers), Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Scara Ntubeni (both Stormers), Trevor Nyakane (Bulls), Julian Redelinghuys (Lions), Adriaan Strauss (Bulls, capt), Duane Vermeulen (Toulon), Warren Whiteley (Lions).