From jeers to cheers, Springboks rise again

Allister Coetzee and Warren Whiteley (Gallo Images)
Allister Coetzee and Warren Whiteley (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - Coach Allister Coetzee, defence specialist Brendan Venter and skipper Warren Whiteley and his Lions have been key factors in the resurgence of the Springboks this year.

Should they beat France at Ellis Park on Saturday, the Springboks will complete a 3-0 series whitewash eight months after being jeered by supporters.

The anger of the crowd in Durban followed a humiliating 57-15 defeat by arch foes New Zealand, the heaviest South African home loss since first competing in 1891.

It was the darkest day of a bleak season for the two-time world champions, worse even than losing for the first time at home to Ireland, away to Argentina, and to Italy.

The first season in charge for Coetzee was calamitous with eight defeats in 12 Tests a calendar-year record for the Springboks.

As the public and media clamoured for the ex-Stormers coach to be axed a quarter of the way through a four-year contract, the 54-year-old realised dramatic changes were necessary.

Out went several of his assistants, who had been appointed by the national rugby body, and skipper and hooker Adriaan Strauss retired, avoiding the embarrassment of being ditched.

In came defence coach Venter, widely recognised as one of the brightest minds in rugby, a new captain in No 8 Whiteley, and far more Lions made the starting line-up.

The man management of Coetzee, the brains of Venter, the drive of Whiteley and skills of the Lions were to prove crucial as the Springboks sought redemption.

Former provincial scrumhalf Coetzee had three pre-season training camps, which were denied to him last year because of his late appointment as successor to out-of-favour Heyneke Meyer.

"It was suicidal going into the 2016 season without pre-season training camps. We played with fire and got badly burnt," reflected Coetzee.

Of all the ills that inflicted the 2016 Springboks, a sieve-like defence was among the most glaring, with numerous soft tries conceded.

Enter Venter, a former centre who was part of the 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning squad and combines coaching with a medical practice in Cape Town.

His impact was obvious in the 37-14 and 37-15 triumphs over France in Pretoria and Durban that clinched the series with a match to spare.

In the last quarter of the first Test and the third quarter of the second, France camped in Springbok territory, attacking relentlessly only to be repeatedly repulsed.

The South Africans tackled with conviction - a far cry from the previous campaign in which seven of the last eight Tests were lost.

"It was heartbreaking last season to see Springboks taking forever to get up after making a tackle," lamented TV analyst and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett.

With the media sights set on Coetzee, Strauss escaped lightly for lacklustre leadership, poor performances and post-match interviews that bordered on pantomime.

As the team stumbled from one disaster to another, Strauss kept insisting that a new dawn was on the horizon.

In fact, things only got worse.

Whiteley has been an inspirational leader of the Lions, by far the best-performing Super Rugby team in South Africa, using a potent mix of running and kicking.

Unassuming off the field, the loose forward leads by example - defending, attacking, seemingly always close to the heart of the action.

"I think it is fantastic that Warren can take his Springboks to his home ground tomorrow (Saturday) with a 2-0 lead over France," said Mallett.

"Imagine the confidence a whitewash will give South Africa ahead of the Rugby Championship. With these performances we can quickly get back to No 2 in the world."

Tougher Tests than France lie ahead, notably matches in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand within four weeks from late August.

But the Boks have got a spring in their step again and even the harshest critics of Coetzee have lauded him for accepting his mistakes and changing course.

Sport24 columnist Mark Keohane says Coetzee must get credit for identifying Venter, Whiteley and his fellow Lions as catalysts of change.

"The key is to keep this group of players and coaches together and allow them to develop and learn from the tougher challenges that lie ahead," he wrote.

Saturday's Test is scheduled for 17:05.


South Africa

15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds


15 Brice Dulin, 14 Nans Ducuing, 13 Damian Penaud, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot

Substitutes: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Vincent Rattez

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