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Selection has provided key for Coetzee

Few rooms that Springbok coach Allister Coetzee ventures into must hit him with the starkly contrasting memories and emotions that he experiences when he goes into post-match press conferences at Kings Park.

Last season he looked like he had just been to the funeral of a close family member when the Boks conceded 50 points to the All Blacks. But as I watched him fielding questions on Saturday night on whether the win over France, thus clinching the three test series with a game to play, was his finest moment in rugby, I recalled another moment in the Coetzee career where he was in that room and in an elated mood.

It was 2012. Western Province won a Durban Currie Cup final that no-one expected them to win. As WP had not won a trophy for a long time, and it was Coetzee’s first major trophy, that must have come pretty close to being his finest moment in rugby as it gave him a lifeline at the union he was working for at the time.

Only time will tell whether this past Saturday at Kings Park will prove as momentous a moment in the Coetzee career, but judging from the questions sent in his direction, there is every chance it could be. Those who thought the Coetzee era as Bok coach would end after this June series need to think again.

Confidence is a big thing to have on your side in professional sport, and the Boks now have some momentum. By the time the Boks get to play the Australians and All Blacks in The Rugby Championships, they could well have extended their winning run to five (one against France and two against Argentina), and Coetzee will be far more comfortable.

If that crystal ball scenario does indeed pan out, Coetzee would have survived because he possesses an ingredient or quality that few Bok coaches of the post-isolation era have – the ability to admit when he is wrong.

The pivotal moment for me in the Coetzee timeline might well be an interview he did with myself and two other journalists in the build-up to the final test of 2016 against Wales in Cardiff.

We asked him if he regretted not basing more of his team’s game and culture around the success that the Lions had enjoyed in Super Rugby. He admitted that he had, and that if he had his time again, he would set that right.

He can’t live the time again, and he definitely doesn’t want to relive 2016, but he is getting a second chance. And he has followed up his words with deeds by making the Lions the spine of his team – No2, No5, No8, the halfbacks and the fullback – with an outside centre thrown in for the most recent test and also the captain of the Lions leading the team.

Coetzee and his coaches have been careful not to just replicate what the Lions do. Backline coach Franco Smith said last week that while a lot is based on the Lions, the Boks have their own calls, code of ethics and team culture.

That is important because it doesn’t help the cause to have the other players feeling excluded.

Indeed, the current Bok assistant coach Brendan Venter attested when I interviewed him for my book on the Springbok coaches that Kitch Christie’s faith and trust in the Transvaal players did put noses out of joint among players from the other provinces in the build-up to the 1995 World Cup triumph.

Both Venter and Mark Andrews told me they felt that while the Christie approach worked for the short-term goal of winning the World Cup – when he took over he told everyone he was doing an ambulance job – they weren’t sure his methods would have been sustainable over a longer period.

What Christie did undeniably get right though at that important juncture in South African rugby history was the way he based his Bok team around the most successful provincial team, and Coetzee should have done the same 12 months ago.

Watching the way players such as Franco Mostert – now there is a seriously good player that I perhaps never rated enough last year – have flourished must have Coetzee wishing he had followed a different path in May 2016.

I’d stop short of completely lambasting Coetzee for making that mistake, for back then I thought he might be right. The series against Ireland took place before the Lions’ impressive finish to the season through the play-off phases and my view of them was probably similar to my view of Mostert at the time.

They proved to be a better than I thought they were.

That though is history and Coetzee has time to put it right now. While he must beware of overdoing the love for the Lions, as making the Boks appear a closed shop can never be a good thing, he is now on the right path.

It does come down to more than selection, and selection of back-room staff this year has a lot to do with it, but team selection has been a big key to the turn-around from the darkness of the last November tour.

It is the key that has unlocked the route forward.

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