Now with Rovigo Delta – while also coaching Namibia – we catch up with the former Springboks boss
“It’s not something I can give a clear-cut answer on!” replies an upbeat Allister Coetzee when asked how he ended up in Rovigo, coaching the Delta side through the Peroni Top10 league.
Nestled in north-west Italy’s Veneto region, lies this famous club who in their prime called in players from abroad like Naas Botha, Willie Ofahengaue, Nick Mallett and more, alongside a host of Italian mainstays. No longer a go-to region for global stars, they are still baked into Italian rugby. And they also have a globally recognised coach at the helm.
But to understand how former Springboks and Stormers head coach Coetzee ended up there, you need to appreciate what had happened in the last few years.
“I was seeing my contract out in Japan (with Canon Eagles) when Covid hit,” he tells Rugby World. “I went back home – family first – and I never thought of returning to Japan and extensions of contracts or those kinds of discussions were never on the table, as that was quite an uncertain time for everyone.
“I was panicking to get a flight home before all the borders closed and I just made it. I was on the second-last flight out of Asia to South Africa. It was a tough time, a terrible time, an uncertain time, you know? I just got out and obviously everything just spiralled out of control with the pandemic. And I was stuck in South Africa for a year, no rugby whatsoever. No involvement anywhere.
“It was quite an important time to catch up with my family again, because I’d been on the road for some time. And just to reflect on life in general.
“The uncertainty was a challenge and as a family we were hit hard by Covid. We lost four family members – father, sister and brother-in-law on my wife’s side, and my mum. So it was quite a challenging time for us. Massive, massive. But the positive of this whole thing is that if I had been busy with rugby, I’d have missed family (time). I wouldn’t have been there.”
Through a time of crises, Coetzee believes his family are tighter, stronger, for it. He was fortunate enough to be able to sustain them, financially, and in the interim he got to spend quality time with his two grandkids, two daughters, their families and his wife’s loved ones too.
Rugby was always going to come back though. And while there was nothing on the immediate horizon for Coetzee, he started getting messages. And this is why it’s not exactly clear-cut. So Coetzee explains.
“I coached with Nelie Smith, the former Springboks player and coach,” he begins. “I was with him at Eastern Province from 1999 to 2001. And through him I met this citrus farmer from Italy. He frequently came to South Africa to visit Nelie and that’s how I met Danilo Ortolani, and we’d been in touch regularly.
“He was texting me when the Springboks played in Padova in 2017, and he came to visit me at the hotel. He told me he was on the board at Rovigo, this little town in Italy, passionate about rugby. He said if I was ever tired of the intense coaching at the top level, to come to Rovigo. It was said in jest, you know?
“Funnily enough, while I was at home (during Covid) he would text me, ‘What are you doing?’ He said once things opened up to come and visit the club, and that’s where it started.”
He spent ten days there last year and he was snared.
And now he is part of Italian rugby, hoping to develop players who can not only represent the Azzurri, but thrive, challenging the top teams in the world. Some turnaround, considering Coetzee was in charge of the Boks that day in 2016, when Italy beat them 20-18 in Florence.
Coetzee says that he sees a bottom-up approach taking root in the country, with the incredible efforts of Italy U20 in recent years needing the chance to keep rolling with increasing standards elsewhere. Franco Smith gets namechecked for his focus on new Emerging Italy or Italy A fixtures being created, with more scrutiny of those steps between the grass-roots game, the United Rugby Championship and then Test level.
What they are contending with always, Coetzee says, is the relative numbers of athletes they can work with, compared to megapowers in the sport.
But if he is team Rovigo, how the hell do you juggle the need for victory and the hope to help emerging Italian talent find a route to the top?
“There’s a huge expectation for Rovigo to do well, but the other part of my process is to make sure that in our region, in Rovigo and Ferrara (and others in the region) and the little clubs around us, is that there is alignment here.
“I make sure that I coach coaches, I upskill coaches. I’ve done a whole lot of coaching clinics with coaches just in the local Rovigo area. That’s where you start you know, and hopefully things can can grow from here, and get bigger and influence more teams.”
So while the club is in the play-offs zone in the league, he can try and bring people on. Every so often a talent comes into your orbit too, with other coaches hoping you can help bring them on. Like with Giacomo De Rea, who was sent to Rovigo from Benetton to try and come on – a player who has the ability to play ten or 15, and who has made a big leap to be involved with the Italy squad during the recent Six Nations.
Of course, while in Italy Coetzee is plotting another Rugby World Cup qualification for Namibia, who need to triumph in the 2022 Africa Cup in July if they are to nab the Africa One spot in Pool A, alongside France, New Zealand, Uruguay and, you guessed it, Italy.
Which is another rugby plate to spin. So where are Namibia – and the planning process – at the moment?
Coetzee tells us: “Namibia has got so many talented players, but obviously they lack a high-performance mentality in their own country at the moment. They don’t take part in a strong club competition, they don’t participate in their neighbouring country’s Currie Cup or the lower division, for example.
“It really is the land of the brave! With (not much over) two million people, you can imagine the number of rugby players. But they have guys who are really passionate about the game and people that need a bit of direction in how they take what they have and on a short timeline produce a bit of quality. I’m really happy to be able to contribute in a small way.
“Ahead of the Africa Cup I plan to have a three-week camp down in South Africa, at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, to get together with the best possible team. That is what I’m busy with at the moment. The boys played in November, against Zimbabwe and Kenya, so we have a good idea of what happened there and they won both of those games.
“So it will be just to get those players and a number of other players who were born in Namibia that could qualify. That’s my big aim, to see them qualified, to represent the country and add to the squad that played in November and even strengthen that. Then the focus is on the three weeks, because what else can you do? Because the boys are spread all over, from America to Europe, some of them in Spain.
“My job at the moment is to make sure that they understand the way we want to play, their strengths or weaknesses, just by internet Zoom meetings and (passing on) the policies of the way you want to attack and how we want to improve, and just to stay in touch with them. The biggest and the most important thing is to make sure that they are well conditioned once they join us.
“We have also planned three games prior to the tournament. So in Cape Town we are hoping to play Maties – Stellenbosch University. We step it up against Western Province. And then I just need to finalise the last match, possibly against an Italy A side and whether that’s going to be in Italy or in South Africa needs to be decided.”
Then it’s the Cup, with Burkina Faso first and then, potentially Ivory Coast, before a final. A run we have seen Namibia put together before but the next big challenge nonetheless.
Which means that Coetzee is currently playing a role in helping two nations improve their rugby fortunes. A job the 58-year-old coach says he is very much enjoying.
For so many out there, this coach’s name will be more readily associated with holding the Springboks role before Rassie Erasmus came in and overhauled so much about the set-up in 2018. A proud nation’s fortunes were completely turned around. Much has also been said about the restrictions Coetzee faced, how after his reign there was far more alignment between provinces and the Boks while other selection avenues opened up – seen as masterstrokes from the current regime. But regardless, there could be plenty from that time that influences Coetzee now.
On this, he says simply: “There are a lot of negatives to (his end with the Boks), but my life philosophy is: it doesn’t matter what is thrown at you, you’re still going to try and make it workable and as positive as you can. So I’ve learnt a lot in that time and that just made me stronger as a person and that helped me to become solution-driven.
“You’ve got to just try to think outside the box all the time, but every bad thing is not necessarily bad unless you let it be. So, if you think your potential is better than that, definitely go for it. You use your potential to the fullest to make things possible and positive.”
Go on a tear with Rovigo, qualify for a World Cup, and help foster some supreme Italian talent and things couldn’t get much more positive. Sure some testing rugby months lie ahead, but it’s great to be in the thick of the game once again.
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