Cape Town - Hands down, the most predictable SA rugby headline in 2017 has been that the Springboks will improve from last year’s eight-defeat horror.
Butch James and Nick Mallett have given their basic reasons, but most of us have arrived at that conclusion because we believe the Boks can’t possibly lose to Italy again.
If the talk about Brendan Venter and Franco Smith joining the Bok coaching staff is true, the team can only get better.
Proposed defence coach Venter – a demanding man with a low tolerance for bullsh*t – may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his white-hot intensity will drive both Bok coach Allister Coetzee and his team, not to mention driving the lazy and complacent faction of SA Rugby’s administrators, up the wall.
Swept under carpet
Smith has denied that he’s leaving the Cheetahs, but if he gets seconded to the national team the question of style, which proved as much as anything to be the catalyst of the Boks’ miserable year, will go a long way towards being answered on the basis of the rugby his team played last year.
But one question remains: Will Coetzee be a more dynamic, strong and decisive leader this time around?
While everyone came to accept the mitigating circumstances – the late appointment, the player drain, the injuries and the juniorised team and support staff – Coetzee’s own culpability came perilously close to being swept under the carpet.
The uncertainty over the Boks’ playing style may seem a superficial concern.
But it was the first hint of Coetzee’s indecision about turning the Boks into a team in his own image.
That’s the thing about coaches that bend their teams to their will: whether the rugby they play is pretty or ugly, there is the imprint of their personality.
From the uncertainty surrounding the captain to the change of heart on the road to Damascus – recalling Morne Steyn, for example – the Boks smacked of a team coached by a committee throughout last year.
What the Springboks need isn’t really a secret: they need to play 21st-century rugby; win more games than they lose en route to hopefully competing for their third World Cup title in 2019; and to transform much like cricket seems to be doing seamlessly at the moment.
As the agent of change appointed on that hoped-for promise, Coetzee can’t be mistaken for someone who achieved any of those things with a degree of satisfaction last year.
With strong personalities like Venter and Smith in his support staff, strength of character and clarity of roles will be even more important to Coetzee.
With those two on board many in the media will take to bypassing Coetzee and install them as default head coaches in the national rugby discourse.
Maybe to give a sense of the kind of man Coetzee is I probably should share a story of a fallout we had in 2006.
Having written one of those infamous open letters to Jake White, I called Coetzee and fellow assistant coach Gert Smal White’s yes men.
To this day I still believe I had a point and, based on the fact that they said they’d never talk to me again, Coetzee and Smal felt they had a point, too.
But the upshot is Smal still doesn’t talk to me whereas Coetzee buried the hatchet by offering me a beer at a Bok media gathering a year later.
Coetzee doesn’t mind swallowing his pride to do what he feels is the right thing.
But to come out with some credit from this Bok job he will need to be a heck of a lot more hardegat than he has been so far.
Either that or suffer the innuendo of supposedly not really being in charge of his team like Peter de Villiers did throughout his tenure.
Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa