Jake and Allister prove a point
With the various Super Rugby conference battles now just about settled, with the Brumbies needing just a solitary log point to make sure of the Australian title, it is interesting to note when it comes to winning coaches, two-thirds of the group are made up of 2007 World Cup winners.
Yes, Jake White and Allister Coetzee used to work together as coach and assistant coach respectively in a previous era of Springbok rugby. White’s Brumbies have all but wrapped up the Australian conference, while Coetzee has more than proved his coaching mettle by taking the Stormers to two successive South African conference titles, and his team is poised to clinch a home semifinal for a third successive season.
Coetzee was White’s preference to replace him at the start of 2008, but the South African Rugby Union didn’t take that route. They opted for Peter de Villiers instead. White went into a self-imposed exile from top rugby before resurfacing this year with the Brumbies.
I have to admit that I was one of those who had doubts about the wisdom of Jake taking up the Brumbies job. Planning a campaign at Super Rugby level, where a team is in action every weekend over a period of several months, is a different challenge to playing a series or tournament rugby, which is what White was used to at age-group and national level.
It was also highly debatable that the Brumbies would provide the raw materials that it was assumed White needed for success – namely big strong forwards and physical players who could tackle opponents to a standstill.
Well, White has emphatically disproved any negative theories, and at the Brumbies he has also proved that the ingredients mentioned above don’t necessarily come only from raw materials and talent. It can also be coached.
Considering where they were this time last year, taking the Brumbies to a conference title is quite an achievement, and it’s not as if we can argue any longer that the Australians are substantially off the pace, for the Brumbies look likely to finish a creditable third on the overall log even without the help of the conference system.
Like Coetzee, White has also coached his team to league success when facing potentially debilitating injury problems, most notably at flyhalf. Matt Toomua was ruled out early in the season, and he was initially set to be first-choice No 10, with Christian Lealiifano moving to inside centre. When Toomua was injured, Lealiifano played the best rugby of his career at flyhalf – only for him too to be injured.
When that happened I thought it was tickets for the Brumbies, but although Zack Holmes isn’t quite in the league of the other two, White and his coaching staff ensured they got him up to speed, and they haven’t lost too often lately.
Coetzee’s team looked on the verge of crashing off the tracks before the break for the international window due to an injury crisis at loose-forward that would have destroyed most other teams. It wasn’t just back row either – let’s not forget that when the Stormers went to Loftus with a decidedly patchwork team at the beginning of June, they also had Joe Pietersen and Andries Bekker on the sidelines, as well as young loosehead Steven Kitshoff.
I never gave them much hope of winning in Pretoria with that team, and yet somehow they did – a tribute to the sense of togetherness of a side that just refuses to lose and which plays for each other and, most definitely, also for their coaches.
Those who read me often know I think Western Province made a huge mistake by letting Rassie Erasmus go. You have to be close to the subject to know how much Erasmus contributed to the current success as director of rugby, and the systems that he put in place have made it much easier for Coetzee and his assistants.
All of the coaches currently in the WP employ were appointed by Erasmus, and until Jebb Sinclair arrived, there wasn’t a player on their books that Erasmus hadn’t contracted. There is continual bleating in the Cape about players leaving, and yet Province won the Vodacom Cup and the Stormers won the SA Super Rugby conference. How does that add up if WP have messed up their contracting?
But recognising the worth of Erasmus and the potential future perils that lie in the path of the Stormers now that he won’t be there in the future to make the changes that might become necessary when the game and the nature of the challenge changes, does not take anything away from Coetzee’s ability as a coach.
I thought it was odd that Coetzee didn’t get more of a look-in when the Springbok position was open earlier this year (he didn’t even get invited for an interview!), and I think it even stranger now that he has presided over yet another relatively successful Stormers campaign.
And when you lump the White and Coetzee records together, and look at their undisputed pedigree, then it becomes so much clearer that SA rugby dropped the ball at the end of 2007 when no attempt was made to keep at least some of the World Cup winning coaches in the system.