CJ STANDER ABIDES by it, so maybe it’s a South African thing, but Allister Coetzee’s practice of shaking everyone’s hand in the room foreshows a head coach in affable form.
The beginning of an end-of-season tour, and the Monday of Test week, engenders such a relaxed mood — no games have been won or lost and promise abounds around the team hotel.
But the problem for Coetzee, whatever about momentum building and long-term strategies and charm offensive tactics, is that this four-game series, starting at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, will define South Africa’s season.
“Our mindset is that it’s not the end of year tour — this tour is about making sure we improve as a group and keep on growing as a team, while also staying on course with our 2019 plan,” he insists.
That’s all well and good, but the coach knows there can be no repeat of 12 months ago when South Africa painfully lost three of their November Tests, including a first-ever defeat to Italy.
Springbok rugby had hit rock bottom — infighting, instability and widespread turmoil all played a part — and Coetzee’s first season in charge (four wins from 12) is widely-regarded as being the worst in its history.
There have been fleeting moments of progression through 2017, but the fact remains that South Africa’s last win was on 26 August against Argentina and they have won just once away from home during his inconsistent reign.
“It’s an important Autumn series for us, to make sure that we play the Test we played last against New Zealand, that’s the standard basically.”
The game, and standard-bearer, he refers to is that compulsive Rugby Championship game against the All Blacks in Newlands, when the hosts pushed the All Blacks all the way and ought to have clinched a victory which was there for the taking.
Ultimately they came out the wrong side of a 25-24 scoreline, but that’s the way Coetzee wants the Boks to play. That’s the performance he wants them to emulate.
“It’s a great opportunity for a Springboks side that’s been together for seven months now to learn from every experience, and I’ve seen how we’ve grown over the last couple of months as a team which makes me really excited,” he says of this tour.
“In this one, against Ireland, it’s going to be really tough so I am sure we will come away with a massive learning experience from this one.”
The last 12 months have been a learning experience for Coetzee, too.
This year the 54-year-old former scrum-half has had the luxury of time, both to plan for a four-week tour which also includes Tests against France, Italy and Wales, and to spend with his squad as he looks to fully integrate his coaching philosophies and methods.
That was one of the biggest lessons from a harsh introduction to international coaching; planning and preparation is a prerequisite at this level, and a lack of cohesion, in all facets of performance from the set-piece to defensive structure, will cost you against any opposition.
“To be honest with you, I was personally worried about our conditioning and this time around I don’t have that sort of fear at all,” he says. “I think we understand that you cannot come here with that southern hemisphere mindset and try to play in the northern hemisphere, so we have to adapt.”
And Coetzee has had the benefit of time with his players, who had their first run out in Dublin at Donnybrook on Monday afternoon. The Springboks arrive as a work in progress, but they are clearly desperate to bury every last demon from a disastrous 2016.
“For us it’s important because we have a huge respect for Ireland, they are a quality side and it’s almost close to your All Blacks side in Europe,” Coetzee explains.
“They have a great coaching staff, Joe [Schmidt] is a great guy, a really good coach, and [Andy] Farrell his defence coach is really astute.
“So we’ve got to be at our best this weekend, we want to see constant improvement and the things we’ve done well, we’ve got to keep like that and also improve the other things we’ve worked on.”
The Springboks boss is full of praise for Ireland, which comes as little surprise given Joe Schmidt’s side provided a rude awakening for Coetzee in his first series in the hot seat two summers ago.
His first game in charge in June 2016 was Ireland’s first-ever Test victory on South African soil and although the hosts won the series 2-1 it only served to paper over the deep cracks beneath the Springbok surface.
“They are ahead of us in the world rankings and it shows how good they are. It is a really experienced Irish side, a well-coached team and they will be playing at the Aviva and I am sure they will be still hurting from that series loss because at that stage they felt it was the best chance to win a series in South Africa. They will be ready for this one as well.
“I’m under no illusions that all Tests will be tight in Europe, that’s one of our main focuses, that we make sure we can close it out when we have the opportunity. Ireland, like I said, they are unbelievable.
“We lost here in 2014 to Ireland, again they had a great plan. They put the ball behind our left winger, they turned South Africa with a couple of kicks. We must be able to deal with whatever they come up with, there will be something new, something innovative, so we expect that.”
Coetzee singles out the ‘world class’ half-back pairing of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray as the primary threat.
“It’s great to have a half-back pairing as your spine, they’re world-class players,” he continued. “They know what they’re doing, they know how to kick, to pass the ball, great core skills. They’re class acts, but we can’t just focus on Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton — there are other great players in the side as well.
“It’s important to understand where the onslaught will come, the attack, and how to stop that. For me, momentum is generically what you want in a game so you must be able to deal with their big ball carriers, you have to be able to deal with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton’s aerial bombardment and then from broken play and counter-attack they can be very, very dangerous.
“Ireland are the New Zealand of Europe.
“All the teams prepare for that, we’ve got to build on our last showing and trying to get there. It’s a completely different motivation from Cape Town, Newlands, to the first away game at the Aviva, but that’s the job, that’s our job and where we need to be at for Saturday if we are able to get the result.
“We’ve got to be right up there mentally and physically and be tactically correct as well.”
Subscribe to The42 podcasts here: