Johannesburg - As international rugby seasons go, few will start as hazardously as the threat posed by the French tour for Springbok coach Allister Coetzee. While this is his second year in charge, it still strangely feels like his first.
Thanks to the limited time he will have had with the team by Saturday’s first Test, 2016’s legacy of results (four wins in 12 games) that a coach can only hope to forget, plus a new captain in Warren Whiteley, Coetzee could be forgiven for feeling like he is beginning again.
But the one thing that will remind him that this is not his first dig is the pressure he will be under for the duration of the three-Test series – which starts at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, resumes in Durban a week later and concludes in Johannesburg.
Lacking last year
The rumour mill has insisted since the beginning of the year that, if Coetzee fails to beat the French comprehensively in this series, he will be shown the door by South African Rugby. Offsetting that is his acquisition of two assistant coaches: Franco Smith and Brendan Venter.
The influence of the latter is already apparent in the selection of overseas-based veterans Frans Steyn and loose-forward Duane Vermeulen.
The former is there to shore up the team defensively in that first channel and to solve the exit strategy issues the Boks had with his howitzer boot. The latter is set to provide the go-forward drive so lacking last year, despite upsetting the coaching staff through critical comments while sidelined in France.
Although Whiteley’s appointment as the 58th Bok captain raises questions about whether he’s automatically in the starting XV and if he belongs at Test level, it was bold not to go with popular sentiment and rather side with the understated Lions captain’s deeds, instead of his lack of dramatic words.
In a strange way, the fact that some people had issues with a few of the selections – Damian de Allende instead of Ruan Combrinck, plus the omission of Lionel Mapoe from the original squad – is promising simply because one can’t trust a coach who selects a team everyone agrees with.
That said, those plans have already been disrupted, with Vermeulen, who seems to have been earmarked for the blindside flank role, only arriving in the country this week after playing in the French Top 14 final on Saturday.
Steyn’s arrival during the week has offset that, but the impressive Lukhanyo Am’s injury (and his replacement by Mapoe – a player one gets the impression Coetzee doesn’t rate) means that whatever plans they had for him will have to wait.
As unfair as expectations of a comprehensive series win over the French are, Coetzee and co can learn from the visitors’ approach to the tour.
Guy Novès’ France – who have played some directionless rugby recently but have shown improvement by finishing third in the Six Nations behind England and Ireland – have set themselves a simple enough target, according to forwards coach Yannick Bru.
“After the disappointments of the past two seasons, we decided to play positive rugby, keep the ball and create space,” he said. “I think we’re on the way. We have to give fans the feeling that we deserve to be supported. I think that’s the main thing we’ve achieved so far.
“But we’re still behind the best teams in the world rankings. We know we need to improve still, so we are working on the ratio between opportunities we create and opportunities we take. Playing against South Africa is a good opportunity to see if we’ve improved”.
When South African rugby fans clamoured for an approach imbued with similarly positive intent, Coetzee committed to what he called “winning rugby”, an example of which was a particularly dreary win over Australia in the Rugby Championship at Loftus last year.
Asked if this was a good time to play the Boks, Bru wasn’t biting: “There’s never a good time to play the Springboks. They’ve had a difficult last season, but we expect a very tough series.
“We have some ambition, but we have humility because we know how far we are from being among the top countries in the world”.