Cape Town – It’s been a rougher ride thus far than Springbok coach Allister Coetzee would have budgeted for when he took over the post earlier this year.
The cold truth is that if his charges – as is so widely anticipated – get beaten, and quite possibly badly, by New Zealand in Christchurch on Saturday, his victory record after seven matches at the helm would slump to just under 43 percent (three out of seven).
Given the gormlessness and uninspiring feel of this Bok side in so many areas, Coetzee is understandably under bombardment from pundits and public back home, especially following their latest setback against a similarly tepid Australian outfit.
Yet even as a substantial amount of the dissent is warranted, and he has plenty to answer for already, there are some sound reasons for not heaping blame too wholly at his own door.
I still believe, personally, that “Toetie” is a better, wiser coach than the green-and-gold evidence of the past few weeks and months suggests.
His Stormers teams over several seasons, for example, won many more matches than they lost, including earning SA conference supremacy for three of the five seasons in which he held the reins under that one-pool system for the country’s franchises.
They were also traditionally very difficult to break down, seldom losing heavily when they did suffer setbacks -- even if there was also substantial, lasting discontent among the Newlands faithful over their conservative, so often “grind things out” battle-plan.
The one thing you can at least say about his early matches in charge of the national team, is that they haven’t yet experienced a genuine thumping a la Rudolf Straeuli or even certain phases of the Jake White era – though that, alas, may well change this weekend.
It is if the Boks are taken to the cleaners in Christchurch that Coetzee will pretty much walk into virgin, particularly uncomfortable terrain for him.
Let’s be clear: I have reservations, some of them fairly deep, about the likelihood that he will, eventually, forge a new bright, strongly identity-driven and notably consistent winning way for the Boks.
But I am also a long way from ready to join the inevitable, emotional “fire him, he’s clearly useless” lobby.
That school fails lamentably to take into account the extent to which many of the players he has shown solid – to the point of extraordinary, in some cases – faith in since early June have instead let him down.
A quick reminder: many of us in scribe/observer circles had only limited bones to pick (and who ever concurs fully over a Bok team or squad?) with Coetzee’s selections for the Ireland series, as he struck what seemed a deft enough balance between keeping some necessary, residual experience from the Heyneke Meyer period and rewarding Super Rugby 2016 form – this he did gradually by filtering in more and more figures from the ranks of the losing finalist Lions.
He has kept changes to a relative minimum, even as certain teething issues took swift hold, and in broadest terms I believe that is the hallmark of a smart coach, unwilling to resort too rapidly to extreme, panicked measures which do little to aid stability or gees. It’s a statement of his man-management -- one area he’s always been renowned for in the first-class landscape.
I also quietly admire him for the amount of time (five starts on the trot) he has given Elton Jantjies, a complex mix of brilliant and fragile, to settle into the flyhalf berth -- even as I fancy that deep down, he does not consider the left-footed pivot his ideal type for the channel.
If I have a significant beef with Coetzee’s approach, it is that he has been patient with some glaringly misfiring individuals for a fatal game or two too long now; too averse to making really major, hard decisions in selection terms for restorative purposes.
But we also cannot summarily dismiss as unimportant the fact that he took over as Bok coach at unusually short notice – his appointment was announced in mid-April, a probably unprecedented mere seven weeks or thereabouts before he had to oversee his first Test match.
Taking over a support staff primarily pre-appointed, something that might not happen in many other frontline rugby countries, would hardly have helped his quest to rapidly assert himself and execute his plans properly.
Then there is a rather vast pool of mostly injured-related, current side-lined figures to weigh up, a phenomenon affecting both established, proven internationals and some younger players who might feasibly have come into the reckoning during 2016.
Such names include Handre Pollard, Pat Lambie (both of them orthodox, much-needed “generals” at No 10), Duane Vermeulen, Frans Malherbe, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Ruan Combrinck, Marcell Coetzee, and the Bulls’ exciting, 21-year-old former SA under-20 fullback Warrick Gelant.
Don’t underestimate the improved oomph some of these men could bring to a presently tentative, spooked Bok side.
Coetzee also isn’t personally on the park (and left only to pull his remaining, greying hair out) when, for instance, his supposedly ball-carrying blindside flank spills an elementary ball forward under only limited pressure, or his various kickers – against his wishes, he swears – thump the ball up, ill-advisedly and repeatedly, onto that aerial maestro Israel Folau.
The portents don’t look too good at this point, I give you that, but Coetzee still deserves an infinitely more reasonable amount of time than six or seven Test matches to put his desired stamp on things.
He is coaching at a vulnerable juncture in Bok history. Sad truth be told, there is an unusually glaring limit on quality playing material available to him at present.
Things should improve quite considerably in that respect next year.
That is when, more acceptably bedded down in a demanding role, we can and should more vigorously judge him.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing