Springboks coach Allister Coetzee seeks to evolve South African rugby

South African rugby is set to evolve under Allister Coetzee, the newly appointed Springboks coach who has promised to shift the team's focus to attack from their traditional reliance on heavy defence. Coetzee was unveiled last week as the 13th Springboks coach since South Africa's readmission to international sport in 1991, and he said that things need to change if the country's game is to move forward.

"The style of play has to evolve in certain ways," Coetzee said at the news conference immediately after he was unveiled as Springboks coach. "There is nothing wrong with the way we've played. We've always said we will play to the strengths of South Africa, and I will keep that. We are renowned for our physicality, but other countries have accepted that challenge. So we have to be a bit smarter.

"A lot of coaches are encouraging the style of ball in hand and playing in wider channels. We must look at our speed of movement on attack and see how quickly we can get into position and how quickly we can use our hands.

"The next thing is about decision-making. We need to put a lot more emphasis on our tactical decision-making, especially our 9s and 10s, who have to make more decisions."

The move to a more aggressive brand of rugby has long been touted as an essential ingredient in South Africa's progression -- particularly from outside the Republic.

Two years ago, New Zealand playmaking legend Carlos Spencer, then in charge of the EP Kings, said: "There is definitely talent [in South Africa]. They just need to have the freedom and the abilities to show it. The thing that frustrates me at the moment living here is to see these players not having the freedom and licence to express themselves."

John Mitchell, the former Lions coach, also delivered a parting shot aimed at South Africa's style of play when he left the country in 2015 for the United States.

"Somebody needs to show leadership in changing the attacking mindset to create a high probability of scoring," he told Radio Sport New Zealand. "For us as New Zealanders, it is an easy thing to teach and coach, but here [in South Africa] it is far more challenging.

"The Lions have shown that approach over the last six years, and they are starting to show the benefits. There is an example in front of their faces, but not too many of the others know how to go about it, and that is worrying."

Trust Super Rugby franchises -- even Southern Kings

Coetzee says he has already seen signs of change in the 2016 Super Rugby competition, with South Africa's six franchises having all impressed him.

"There has been a lot of intensity," Coetzee said. "It's a good thing to see the ball moving rather than just kicking and defensive tactics.

"The Lions, Sharks and Stormers have all done well. The Bulls look good with ball in hand, and even the Kings have had their moments."

The Southern Kings may have had their moments, and they claimed their first victory of the season earlier this month when they defeated Japan's Sunwolves in Port Elizabeth, but the Eastern Cape-based franchise remains the problem child of South African rugby.

Their inclusion in Super Rugby "ticks the boxes," South African Rugby Union (SARU) chief executive Jurie Roux said when the expanded competition was announced, but it raised concerns that South Africa's chances of winning the tournament would be diminished because the talent, such as it was, had been diluted. History shows that South Africa was not exactly bossing proceedings even when they had "just" four and then five teams.

Since Super Rugby began in 1996, a South African franchise has won the title only three times; all three times, that franchise was the Bulls, who triumphed in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Compare that with Australia's four wins from three franchises and New Zealand's 13, with four of their five franchises successful, and it's clear that South Africa is lagging behind. The addition of a sixth team is unlikely to change that, especially considering the identity of that expansion team.

The Kings have courted controversy since they were established, not least because they were always viewed as nothing more than a development exercise. They were formed in 2005, when the SA Rugby Presidents' Council signed a legally binding agreement to support them financially until December 2006. More than 10 years later, the Kings still need propping up.

Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal made an offer in November 2015 to buy the Kings before SARU stepped in to take over the running of the franchise after the provincial union, Eastern Province Rugby Union, fell into financial trouble. Still, the financial woes have continued, with the provincial union confirming in early March that a provisional liquidation order had been granted in the Port Elizabeth High Court after the South African Rugby Players' Association brought an action against the union when players went at least two months without salaries and coach Brett Janse van Rensberg resigned. Janse van Rensberg, the Eastern Province Kings' Currie Cup coach, was unlikely to have been involved with the Super Rugby franchise, with SARU's Mobi-Unit assisting the franchise, but his departure remains a symptom of a wider malaise.

For now, the Super Rugby franchise is operating all but independently of the provincial union, which awaits the outcome of the legal action; SARU could become further involved.

"Constitutionally, SA Rugby can only become involved in the administration of a union if it is invited in, or if a union fails to put in place recommended corrective measures," Roux said. "But, in the first instance, the Eastern Province Rugby Union, as the sole shareholder in EP Rugby (Pty) Ltd, will have to address the court action before anything else can happen."

Against that backdrop, it was expected the Kings would struggle in Super Rugby; for the most part, they have. But they have experienced some joy, having recorded their first win of the 2016 Super Rugby campaign in a tensely fought game against the Sunwolves; yet for all the Kings' celebration of that 33-28 victory, the still-winless Japan- and Singapore-based side put the result into context when they subsequently slumped to a shocking 92-17 defeat by the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

South Africa's five other teams, meanwhile, are expected to produce more than they have in the past, especially as the new format is kinder on them. They will each play fewer South African derbies, as desired by SARU officials who considered those matches "particularly attritional" on their own players; the teams each also will travel less -- or at least no more despite expansion.

So far, the Lions have grabbed the headlines, with five wins from seven games, including success on tour in Japan and New Zealand and victories over the Sharks and the Stormers, to surge to the top of Africa Conference 2. The Stormers, whom Coetzee coached before leaving for Japan's Kobe Steelers, lead the other Africa Conference.

In Coetzee's five years in charge of the Stormers, he took them to five playoffs and gained a thorough understanding of the challenges a franchise coach faces in an ever-lengthening season. That's why Coetzee has entrusted the Super Rugby coaches with the preparation of players for the international window and why he will not host a separate Springboks camp ahead of the June Tests against Ireland.

"I would like players to focus on Super Rugby," Coetzee said. "The last thing a Super Rugby coach wants there is when the national coach starts talking to individuals. I back the Super Rugby coaches fully."

Coetzee's stance represents a major adjustment in approach, as previous national coaches have insisted on Springboks camps, and the thawing of relations between the national setup and the franchises could signal an ease that will help South African rugby move forward.

The new-look Currie Cup

SARU, meanwhile, is attempting to create similar structural harmony at lower levels of the game.

This year, the Currie Cup will undergo a major makeover that will include all 14 provincial unions and Namibia, instead of eight, and run from April to October; the second-tier Vodacom Cup has been scrapped, and the result is a more encompassing and longer tournament with more than double the number of fixtures (166) than last year (76) in a marriage of the two sections of South African domestic rugby into one entity.

Still, an essential element of the Vodacom Cup remains because there is a division in the Currie Cup fixtures after the first round of matches.

Each team will initially face every other team before the six Super Rugby unions automatically move on to the premier division alongside three qualifiers -- irrespective of results -- creating an us-and-them scenario. The remaining six non-qualifying teams contest a first-division title. Points are not carried over from the first round to the second, so we have a fresh start when the split happens.

Not everyone is happy with the structure -- especially as it was decided upon after the distribution of funds had been agreed.

When the tournament was first proposed, it was decided that each of the three qualifiers for the premier division would receive R2.5 million ($175,000); the unions were eager to attain that kind of financial boost, so many voted in favour of the tournament. After agreeing on the idea, however, it was decided the first phase would run concurrently with Super Rugby -- which means that some provincial teams will be depleted.

The Pumas, for example, had already agreed to lend four players -- Vincent Koch, Renaldo Bothma, Lubulalo Mtyanda and Justin van Staden -- to Super Rugby franchises, so they will now have to attempt to qualify for the premier division without the quartet. They were caught in what their president, Hein Mentz, called a "Catch 22" after believing they would automatically be included in the premier division by virtue of finishing sixth in last year's Currie Cup and wanting to secure the funds that came with that. Then they learned their inclusion in the premier division would not be automatic, but they had signed the agreement.

Counting the cost

Not everything is working against the provinces. They will soon enjoy some financial relief, as SARU announced a new central contracting system that will shift the responsibility of paying the bulk of nationally contracted players from provincial unions on to SARU, in the hope of increasing salaries and preventing the ongoing player drain.

To understand this, we have to go back to the previous payment structure, in which South Africa's provincial unions were the primary employers of players -- paying each player between R600,000 ($US42,000) and R4 million ($US279,000) a year. SARU would then issue additional contracts up to R1.5 million, meaning a player could earn a maximum of R5.5 million a year. The provincial unions paid the bulk of the Test players' salaries despite often not receiving the bulk of their services, and the compensation offered by SARU when players were unavailable was measly. SARU paid the unions between R10,000 and R15,000 per player per game when the stars were on national duty -- despite the national body's boasting an annual budget of R700 million.

In November 2015, SARU agreed a deal with the players' union that it would offer joint contracts; SARU would pay as much as 70 percent of the players' salaries. SARU has not announced the number or names of players contracted, but the union is understood to be targeting 20 players with an ability to offer them more money than in the past because of changes to its own funding model.

The SARU general council has approved a funding increase from R25 million to R90 million and secured image rights for all South African professional players. The provincial unions can then use the images in marketing material and sponsor appearances, and the players' union, MyPlayers, will distribute the income to the players.

More money, less leaving?

With the revamped finances, SARU seeks to ensure South Africa does not lose any more players to overseas clubs.

"It has always been a challenge keeping our players in the country, made ever worse by the weakness of the rand," Roux said. "This new deal that we have struck with the players' organisation is one part of the effort to retain the skills available to the game. It has meant a realignment of how we budget, but we are convinced that it is a wise investment for the benefit of South African players and the game in this country."

The new deal has come too late for SARU to hold on to the du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, or Duane Vermeulen, whose Toulon earnings are estimated to tally R45 million over three years; but SARU hopes it will lead to younger players such as Frans Malherbe, 25, electing to stay at home rather than heading to Europe or Japan.

The prop, who has been named Stormers co-captain for 2016, alongside Springboks and Blitzboks back Juan de Jongh, turned down a deal to join Toulon to stay at home and live his dream of playing for the side he supported as a boy.

"For now I have no plans to go overseas," Malherbe said.

"I was born in the Western Cape, I have grown up here, played here and been to Newlands as a fan here. There are not a lot of rugby players who get the opportunity to play for the team they supported as a youngster. That's amazing. I also have a lot of Springbok ambitions, and at this stage it's unclear what the rule might be regarding overseas-based players."

Coetzee has confirmed, for now, the status quo of being able to select foreign-based players. Bryan Habana is the only player unavailable for the Ireland series, after he was released from Toulon to play in two legs of the HSBC Sevens World Series earlier this year.

However, SARU president Oregan Hoskins has warned Coetzee the policy will not be in place forever.

"It would be remiss of us not to review our policy of allowing national players to ply the trade overseas," Hoskins said at Coetzee's unveiling. "We understand that our currency is weak. We acknowledge the fact that our players must make a living and they are doing it, but we need to put South Africa first and we need to seriously look at it now."


Where a player plies his trade is not the only criteria Coetzee has for selecting his team, SARU having signed a memorandum of understanding with South Africa's sports ministry that outlines a commitment to change in representative teams.

"Our agreement encompasses six dimensions, not just the national team," Roux said. "There's a very big plan in place. It's a very strategic plan that runs to 2019, and we know what the penalties are if we don't get there."

The "very big plan," if executed, will see the Springboks expected to have a 50 percent nonwhite team by 2019.

The penalty for failure to reach the target is potentially extreme: South Africa's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, has threatened national federations with the withdrawal of their international status, government funding and endorsements for sponsorships if they do not fall in line with transformation targets.

Former Sharks and South African player John Smit told ESPN in 2015 that transformation was "a misunderstood topic in South African rugby."

"I think it's been misconstrued mostly, which is why it creates such confusion and is a debated about forum," Smit told my colleague Tom Hamilton last year. "Transformation is not about giving people an unfair chance. It's about saying hey, we have 50 million people, let's say half of them are men -- that's 25 million people. Let's transform that so as many of those can play rugby so we no longer have to pick from three or four million people ... I think it's been misconstrued ... along the lines there were a couple of guys that people thought shouldn't have been picked, but you can't tell me now that for the last 10 years there's a guy who's been picked in a Springboks side that hasn't deserved it."

Coetzee fully understands the transformation requirements, having coached at the franchise level. The Stormers were the most transformed Super Rugby team in the country under him, and he has promised to take that approach to the national team and to his support staff as well.

"It's not an issue for me," Coetzee said as he was unveiled. "This is South Africa. A national coach needs to understand you are living in South Africa, and it is unique. That uniqueness must make us stronger.

"At the Stormers, I was faced with the same challenge -- and it's an exciting challenge. I selected players and they performed and they were selected on merit. When a player of colour is selected, he must understand where he fits into the plan and why he is selected. I need to back every player I select."

Coetzee's assistant is Mzwandile Stick, a former Sevens player and full-back, who has coached the EP Kings and their under-19 side.

"It is my duty to make sure I bring Stick through," Coetzee said.

Yet it is only one of many duties the new coach will have, starting with whom he will select as his captain and how the team performs against Ireland and in the rugby championship later this year.

"There is going to be massive expectation," Coetzee said. "But also massive opportunity."