The message coming out of the Springbok camp is once again as clear mud.
Two weeks ago, a defiant Allister Coetzee told everyone who would listen that one bad result – or more specifically the worst result in Springbok history – would not define this team.
No need to panic, Coetzee said. The Boks played well in the preceding six Tests. Neither the plan nor the selections were at fault in the Albany aberration. The bounce of the ball didn’t go South Africa’s way. Any team can leak eight tries and 57 points in those circumstances. Right?
At least that’s what Coetzee told us at the time. We shook our heads, lamented the state of South African rugby, and then resigned ourselves to the fact that the Boks would press on with their flawed approach for the foreseeable future.
Earlier this week, Coetzee spoke about the team’s ‘turnaround strategy’ ahead of the home Tests against Australia and New Zealand. After all that talk about sticking to a plan that worked against France, Argentina, and to lesser extent against Australia in Perth, the Boks look set to make another tactical shift.
Coetzee contradicted himself on almost a daily basis in 2016. Those mixed messages were reflected in the way the players performed over the course of a season that witnessed eight defeats in 12 Tests.
The decisions taken by the Bok coach these past two weeks, and indeed the comments made by Coetzee in the media, suggest that this Bok group is still searching for an identity more than nine months into the new season.
The management of Francois Hougaard makes no sense. The player has alternated between wing and scrumhalf over the course of his career. Last year, Coetzee used Hougaard four times on the wing. This season, Coetzee made it clear that Hougaard would focus on scrumhalf.
Hougaard’s struggles in that position are well documented. His technical limitations were certainly exposed when the Boks toured the northern hemisphere in 2014. Coetzee should have known about the player’s shortcomings before he selected him in this position in 2017.
Do the Boks need overseas-based players? Or is everyone still swallowing the lie that an all-local side is lekker?
Bath-based Francois Louw has been brought in to bolster the forwards in the lead-up to the next Test in Bloemfontein. Meanwhile, Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and other accomplished Test veterans continue to be ignored.
It’s equally hard to see where Coetzee stands with regards to the future of his back three.
S’bu Nkosi, an outside back with the size and skills to be a force at this level, received a national call-up, but has since been released to play Currie Cup, while Raymond Rhule – who missed nine tackles against the All Blacks – was defended, and then dropped.
At the same time, Coetzee has retained several backline players – Courtnall Skosan and Andries Coetzee to name a few – who are patently out of their depth.
Ruan Combrinck continues to be overlooked by Coetzee. Flyhalf Handré Pollard was rushed back into the Bok squad earlier this year despite a lack of game time. Combrinck, who played for the SA A side against the French Barbarians this June, and then for the Lions in the Super Rugby playoffs, still hasn’t played enough top-flight rugby to be considered for the Boks. Try and work that one out.
What can we expect from the Boks when they front the Wallabies and All Blacks over the next two weeks? It’s hard to say.
According to Coetzee, the group has learned from its poor performance in Albany, a statement that is at odds with his squad selections.