As the Super Rugby season draws to a close it is perhaps an opportune time to recognise the significant contribution Allister Coetzee has made - and is still making - to South African rugby, with special reference to his tenure as Western Province and Stormers coach.
Coaches don’t often get the credit they deserve and I believe that Allister, given his significant achievements, is a case in point.
Furthermore, since the Stormers (the Super Rugby side he coached for six years) has qualified for yet another Super Rugby playoff spot it is indeed fitting to highlight his particular contribution to Western Province rugby.
During his term as head coach of the Stormers he embraced the opportunity to take on the twin challenge of ‘transforming and winning’ in a province and society (Western Cape) where rugby is embedded in the daily lives of people. By daring to take the coaching position at WP, Allister showed that he had the required knowledge, temperament and fortitudes to make it a successful project.
True to his character, always humble and a dedicated hard worker, Allister toiled his way through the system earning respect from his peers since his playing days and similarly after retirement, when he turned to coaching as a career.
During this time he coached the EPRU Elephants, Emerging Springboks, SA Under-23, Sharks and Stormers as assistant coach and then, his big break as Jake White’s right hand man in 2004.
He grabbed the opportunity with both hands and never looked back.
I remember interviewing Allister on a few occasions during that period and recalls the many fascinating stories he told me about Os du Randt’s comeback and how he and Jake White utilised Os’ status and experience to rebuild pride in the Springbok jersey.
He also relayed to me the many hours they (the Springbok management team) spend working with the players to grow and build relations with and among the core members of the Springbok squad in order to forge unity and a sense of purpose.
Having been a world class player himself (he represented the SARU- (pre-unity) National team), he has an acute understanding of what makes rugby players tick, what inspires them and what turns them off. In that sense he was a very important cog in the “success wheel” of the 2007 Springbok world champions.
However, it was only later on at WP and the Stormers that he came into his own and where he, in my opinion, made the biggest impact.
More mature and with a wealth of experience at the highest level of the game he set about his task, unperturbed by the almost fanatical Cape Town rugby crowd.
It wasn’t all good, but he managed the difficult times with a distinctive professional demeanor that won him respect across the diverse communities of the Western Cape.
When it was time to leave he did so with his head held high.
More recently, the almost seamless transition from the ‘Allister era’ to the ‘Eddie Jones moment’ and then to the temporary appointment of Robbie Fleck (his former assistant coach); is yet another compliment to the firm foundation he laid during his six years in charge at Newlands.
Coetzee followed a strategic approach with player recruitment, bringing young talented players into the WP and Stormers squads early on and then signing top players for positions where the available talent was thinly spread.
When Bongi Mbonambi was unwanted at the Bulls Allister seized the opportunity to sign the bruising hooker for WP and the Stormers.
Coetzee was especially excited about young players like Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni, Kobus van Wyk, Cheslin Kolbe, Damien de Allende, Nizaam Carr, Nic Groom and others with whom he forged a special bond.
This was evident throughout is time in the Cape. For all the confidence and belief that he showed in these players, they paid him back double on the field, week after week. Players will play for their coaches if they know that the coach beliefs in and depends on them.
Millin Petersen, the famous SARU coach firmly believed in this and it was one of his strongest attributes as a coach: the ability to motivate and inspire his charges to go above and beyond. Having played under Petersen, I am sure Allister gleaned that from the great coach and it is helping him on his way to become even greater.
During his stint at WP Allister coached the team to five out of a potential six Currie Cup finals, winning two of them. An unbelievable achievement. He also won the South African Conference of Super Rugby in four out of six Super Rugby competitions when he coached the Stormers, another unequaled feat for a South African coach. In 2010 and 2011 the Stormers finished second on the overall log and finished top of the overall log in 2012. In 2015, Allister’s last season as Stormers coach, he finished third on the overall log. The consistency with which he achieved must rank among the best in the business.
On Saturday the extensive harvest of his six years investment in WP rugby will run onto the field to wrestle a playoff win from the Chiefs, a feat that has sadly escaped the home side on a few occasions in the past. I will be cheering loud for the Stormers, the Lions and the Sharks, but a little extra louder for the Stormers because of the Toetie link.
When De Allende or Leolin Zas break the line on Saturday I will see the hand of Allister in it; I will see reflected on the field the legacy of South African rugby, black and white, SARU (pre-unity) and SARU (unified) and yes, Millin Petersen and Harry Abrahams and all the great coaches that came before them.
But most of all, I will see Allister Coetzee, our Springbok coach who came full circle to tie all these threads together for us.
Thank you Toetie.
Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player (1984-1986)
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