Overseas-player ruling ignores problem
Allister Coetzee started off this week with something he wasn’t able to do last year – he hosted a training camp in Johannesburg for the wider group of players that he may draw on during the 2017 international season.
The fact that he could name a squad in March and then work with that squad is one significant step forward for the Springbok coach in comparison with his first season in charge. This time last year he hadn’t even been appointed yet and there was no time to plan camps once he was thrust into the hot seat well into April.
The camps will benefit Coetzee in that they will give him a chance to at least make a start on building team culture and also allow him to take a good look at the fringe players, marginal calls and players he is not properly acquainted with.
He was criticised for his initial team selections when the Irish arrived last year, and there was a feeling he ignored some good players that he hadn’t worked with before, but that was perhaps understandable given how little time he had to prepare.
Coetzee did have a lot of valid excuses last year, but those are being removed now, which is why his employers shouldn’t dilly dally if the greater preparation time he is being afforded doesn’t lead to immediate results. Coetzee said before the final test of last year that if his results didn’t improve in the next 12 months he’d resign, but our rugby cannot afford to wait that long. Unless there is a noticeable improvement in the first series against France, Coetzee will surely be on the way out.
The Boks won four out of 12 matches played under Coetzee in 2016, which is bad enough, but the really damning statistic is the seven losses in the last eight matches and the indication that the team performances were actually getting worse the longer his tenure lasted.
During the disastrous end-of-year tour, where the Boks played four matches if you factor in the clash with the Barbarians at Wembley and never won one of them, Coetzee mentioned the SA Rugby policy on overseas-based players as one of several areas that required clarity before the start of the new season. That was after he complained about having only six days to re-assimilate overseas-based players back into his team ahead of the test against England at Twickenham.
Obviously, because they’d played for him for most of the year, Coetzee was tied to those players then. He is going to have to think long and hard though at the start of this new season about just how many overseas-based players he wants in his team, given the changes sweeping through the way rugby is approached at franchise level in South Africa and the drive for a more unified conditioning programme.
South African rugby has to find a way to make it attractive for the top players to play locally, which obviously means the sport needs more money to be made available, but if you look at what should be the long-term goal of getting the Boks onto the same page as the All Blacks, the new ruling passed on overseas players doesn’t really go far enough.
Yes, making overseas-based players who have yet to play 30 tests for the Boks ineligible for selection does address the issue of young players leaving the country. Only last week Cobus Reinach told the media that he still hoped to be playing for the Boks even though he was moving overseas at the end of this season. That won’t happen for him now, and the likes of Steven Kitshoff will have to return home too if they want to continue in the green and gold.
But how does it address what Coetzee was speaking about last November – the problems associated with welcoming back players at short notice who have been playing on different continents and sometimes in radically different time zones? It doesn’t.
It is not a coincidence that the two most successful teams on the planet at the moment are New Zealand and England, both of whom have a strict no tolerance policy when it comes to overseas players. England coach Eddie Jones is thus able to get his players together for more regular camps, and the benefits of the Kiwi conditioning programme are well known.
You can’t implement a conditioning programme properly when players are spread all over the planet, and neither does a camp, such as the one the top players were busy with this week, have full relevance if not all the players are there.
Of course, Coetzee can make his own decision on which and how many overseas players he deploys. And that is something he needs to think about now. There are no limits on the number of overseas players with 30 caps or more that he can select, but if he opts for a large number then he can hardly be justified in using the short re-assimilation time and the other negative aspects of having overseas-based players in your team as an excuse for poor performance later in the year.
If he loads his squad with overseas-based players he is making a rod for his own back. Ideally there shouldn’t be any.