Can Coetzee Cut It?

Two years ago I wrote a blog calling for the Stormers to sack Allister Coetzee.  I said that in a results-driven environment the cold, hard fact is that Coetzee had failed.  With the former Western Province boss now set to take over as Springbok coach on Tuesday, I thought it would be worth rehashing some of those sentiments.  Let us go back then to 2010 when he took over from Rassie Erasmus at Newlands.

It all started so well.  The Cape franchise finished second on the overall then-Super 14 log and qualified for the final where they lost to the Bulls.  Despite five teams outscoring Coetzee’s men in the overall round robin points totals, the Stormers boasted the best defence by a country mile.  Their 171 points conceded in the league stage was more than 100 points better than the next-best defence; 288 conceded by the Waratahs.  Tellingly the Cape side earned eight bonus points including four for having scored four tries or more in a match.

In 2011 Cape Town rugby fans celebrated their side topping the South African Conference in the revamped Super Rugby competition.  In 18 outings the Stormers would again score four tries or more four times and boasted the tournament’s second-best defence, conceding just five points more than the Tahs in the league stage.  Coetzee’s side finished second overall (like in 2010) but would disappointingly go down in a home semi-final against the Crusaders.

2012 was a better story for the Stormers.  They topped the South African Conference again but also the overall log this time.  Again Coetzee’s side boasted the best defence, some 77 points fewer than the next-best Brumbies.  However the signs of a considerably more conservative approach started to show with the team failing to score four or more tries at any stage of the season preferring rolling mauls and forcing the opponent into errors and kicking the resultant penalty.  Coetzee would argue the tactic was successful until his side went down in another home semi-final.  This time the Sharks had the beating of the Stormers 26-19.  How helpful would an extra try have been in that game?

By 2013 the chickens had come home to roost.  The Stormers managed just one bonus point for scoring four tries or more but significantly the other teams were suddenly matching Coetzee’s men who had become so predictable and easy to combat.  The Cape franchise missed out on the play-offs and quite frankly that should have been the end of the Coetzee era.

But the Stormers brains trust felt their coach should continue.  In 2014 the Cape Town team finished a dreadful 11th with seven wins and nine defeats while conceding 326 points – so much for that famed defence, hey? 

The following year saw an improvement.  The league table reveals the Stormers finished third and qualified for a play-off position.  However closer inspection exposes Coetzee’s crew for actually being seventh and only placed as high as third because of affirmative action.  No, it is not what you might be hung up on as a South African rugby fan, but instead each of the three SANZAR countries was guaranteed at least one team in each of the three top spots on the log.

The fact is Coetzee had more than enough to get it right and the facts suggest his side had gone backwards.  The Stormers became the ugliest team in the competition.  Their strategy seemed to be to maul and maul some more, grinding down the opposition, forcing them into mistakes and then punishing them three points at a time.

It is an outdated strategy that belongs to a bygone era.  What will his Springboks do when they find themselves 20-9 down with 15 minutes to play?  Where will they suddenly find two tries from?

While I do not agree with Coetzee’s appointment, my argument is based purely rugby reasons.  Once upon a time, when I was based in Cape Town, I was on the Western Province/Stormers beat and covered Coetzee during his first year as Province coach in 2008.  On a personal level, he is a true gentleman who always made time for me and is actually a good interview.  He is a knowledgeable man and there is no doubt he knows this sport and has paid his dues. 

I am just not convinced he is the right man for this particular job.  Nevertheless, I wish him all of the best.  After all, as much as I am a journalist, I am also a South African and if Coetzee does well, the Springboks will do well.  I hope he proves me wrong.