Johannesburg – Under-pressure South Africa coach Allister Coetzee believes he has found the keys to success after a disastrous first season in charge, but some critics remain sceptical.
The diminutive 54-year-old former provincial scrum-half and Western Stormers coach says better preparations, coaching changes and a new team spirit will have a profound influence on results.
South Africa had three pre-season training camps, Brendan Venter (defence) and Franco Smith (attack) are new assistants, and the mood among the players has improved noticeably.
His boasts will be put to the test for the first time in Pretoria this Saturday when the Springboks tackle France in the first of three internationals.
Media reports claim a series loss to Les Bleus could spell the end for the coach given a four-year contract that ends after the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Coetzee disagrees: “I signed last year until the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the contract has not changed.”
He oversaw the worst calendar-year record in Springbok history with eight losses in 12 Tests, including a 57-15 drubbing by greatest rivals New Zealand in Durban.
The country that were crowned world champions in 1995 and 2007 lost for the first time at home to Ireland, away to Argentina, and to traditional whipping boys Italy.
After winning three of the first four Tests in 2016, South Africa lost seven of the remaining eight, leading to persistent public and media calls for Coetzee to be fired.
As the Springboks plummeted from second to seventh in the world rankings, SuperSport TV analyst and former national coach Nick Mallett called the performances “heartbreaking”.
“You have to see a Springbok team giving its best on the field, not lying around on the ground and taking 10 seconds to get up after each tackle,” was his damning verdict.
“Just getting the effort right will definitely improve the wins record to 50 percent,” insisted Mallett.
“And if the players manage to get coached properly, that figure can rise to an average of 65 percent. The Springboks cannot be worse than last year.
“Many Springbok coaches have lost their jobs with better results than those achieved by Coetzee.”
After three-day training camps in Stellenbosch, Johannesburg and Plettenburg Bay, Coetzee says he is satisfied that France will confront well-prepared Springboks.
“You cannot just see the players a week or two before the international season kicks off and expect them to perform,” he stressed.
But Times Media group writer Craig Ray is unconvinced.
“The entire set-up and planning in 2016 was a shambles and the late appointment of Coetzee has been used as an excuse,” he wrote.
“South Africa should have been worse at the beginning of the season and gradually improved as Coetzee put his plan into action, but the opposite happened.
“The excuse that there was no time to prepare does not hold up when matters became worse the more time the squad spent together.”
The late appointment of Coetzee last year meant there were no pre-season camps and inexperienced assistant coaches were chosen by the national rugby body, SAR.
A lack of team spirit was glaringly evident with Coetzee-appointed skipper and hooker Adriaan Strauss failing to inspire a struggling side.
As the media set their sights almost exclusively on Coetzee, Strauss got off lightly until retiring from international rugby at the end of the horror season.
Traditionally a kick-and-chase team, the Springboks sometimes switched to a more ball-in-hand approach without making any impact.
New skipper Warren Whiteley, a No 8 and key figure in the continuing Super Rugby success of the Johannesburg-based Golden Lions, is a popular public and media choice.
But columnist Mark Keohane cautioned against pre-judging the leadership skills of the 29-year-old.
“For now it is smiles all round. Warren is being feted because of his achievements with the Lions. In a few months he will be assessed on what he has done with the Springboks.”
Judgment day for Coetzee could come much sooner if they lose the France series.
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds