Appointed late and hitched to all kinds of conditions, Coetzee coached the Springboks last year to their worst ever record, eight losses in 12 tests, setting all kinds of unwanted records and firsts. He didn’t quit though. Neither did he quit after they were demolished by the All Blacks 57-0 in September, and nor did he quit after they capitulated to Ireland 38-3 to start their ongoing tour of Europe.
After every humiliation, Coetzee has regrouped and ploughed on, aiming to oversee a turnaround and complete his four-year contract at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
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But the murmuring in South Africa is that Coetzee won’t survive his second annual review by new national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Ireland might have been the last straw.
After the Dublin debacle, Coetzee’s 10 changes paid off in Paris, where his side edged France 18-17. Italy, a shadow of the side which beat them last year, should have been a match to experiment in last weekend, but as a coach trying to survive Coetzee went for the result and got it, 35-6.
The continuity in selection, nothwithstanding five changes, three of them enforced, suggests Coetzee has been building his side to make a statement against Wales on Saturday in Cardiff.
Which begs the question: How much would the Springboks have to beat Wales by for Coetzee to have some leverage?
The Boks’ biggest win in Cardiff was 34-12 in 2007, but that was the new Rugby World Cup champion beating a team which didn’t get out of its Rugby World Cup pool.
These Springboks aren’t close to the class of 2007. They are better than last year, but they’re still finding their way. They’re good enough to beat modest opponents but still not good ones.
And beating Wales won’t give Coetzee the signature win he still lacks.
This year he’s beaten former heavyweight France four times, leaving coach Guy Noves fending off questions about his dim future, plus Argentina and Italy, who have both regressed of late.
Meanwhile, Wales, fifth in the Six Nations and back under Warren Gatland’s control, has been well beaten in the past month by Australia and New Zealand, and pipped Georgia only by appearing to rig the replacement rules. Only eight starters against the Wallabies have survived to run out against the Springboks.
At least the Boks enter on the back of a decent showing, perhaps their best performance of the year. In a downpour that made an expansive game plan risky, they had the minority of possession and territory but conceded no tries to Italy, and scored five taking the old-fashioned direct route.
Wales had a similar amount of majority turf and ball against the All Blacks, but not the nous or finishing touch to utilize it. Gatland said only the All Blacks wings, who scored two tries each, were the difference in the 33-18 win, but that underplayed the skills of the men inside them to set things up.
The Welsh are favored in this last major test of the year but have a decided B team appearance about them, which is likely why the match is still less than 10,000 tickets from a sell-out.
Gatland is pragmatic about his lineup, in which he’s giving a debut to New Zealand-born center Hadleigh Parkes on the day he qualifies on residency. Giving experience to fillers-in is as important to Wales’ big-picture plan to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the distinguished list of absentees.
This appears to be a test too far for Wales, and lip service paid to player welfare. But the match makes too much money – an estimated gate of 2.5 million pounds ($3.3 million) – to do without.
”It’s a balancing act,” Gatland says. It’s about a learning experience, too, and Gatland adds, ”I can’t coach that.”
Gatland, despite losing two out of three in the past month, isn’t in danger of losing his job.
Coetzee is. Even if he finishes this tour with three successive wins.