Allister Coetzee: Does new South Africa coach have the hardest job in rugby?

By Chris JonesBBC Radio 5 live rugby reporter
Allister Coetzee and South African minister for Sport and Culture Fikile Mbalula
Allister Coetzee (left) and South African minister for Sport and Culture Fikile Mbalula

"South Africans are not very loyal. If you get beaten by the Irish, we are going to start digging up things we never knew about you."

The words of sports minister Fikile Mbalula, upon Allister Coetzee's appointment as South African rugby's new head coach.

As far as encouragement from high up goes, it is certainly unique. But then there is no job in world rugby like being the coach of the Springboks.

Only perhaps New Zealand rugby supporters hold the high level of expectation as those who follow South Africa. Quite simply, nothing but being the best will do.

And while that is a formidable challenge in itself, Coetzee has been tasked with "changing the guard" at the top of Springbok rugby, and is responsible for meeting racial transformation targets in the process.

It is a job like no other. The hardest in world rugby? Quite possibly. Either way, Coetzee is embracing the challenge.

"It is a massive responsibility," the 52-year-old told the BBC from his offices in Cape Town.

Newly appointed South Africa head coach Allister Coetzee
New South Africa head coach Allister Coetzee

"Managing expectations of all South Africans is not an easy thing. I am under no illusions, it will be really tough. [But] I feel this is the right time for me."

Coetzee, who has extensive coaching experience at provincial and Super Rugby level across South Africa, was an assistant under Jake White when South Africa won the World Cup for the second time in 2007.

"[Being South Africa head coach] has 100% been the dream, but something I never chased. I am now settled, experienced, and have a lot of confidence in myself," he said.

Coetzee will certainly need self-confidence and a thick skin. Even a coach of the stature of Heyneke Meyer struggled at the end of his tenure with the pressure. A two-point World Cup semi-final defeat by the eventual champions New Zealand was close but no cigar. Meyer was out, and Coetzee is in.

Heyneke Meyer looks on after winning the bronze medal match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between South Africa and Argentina
Heyneke Meyer guided South Africa to third place in the 2015 World Cup - but left the job within weeks

"I think one should embrace the pressure - it will always come," Coetzee says. "If the head coach is a bit nervous that will filter through [to the players]. It makes me excited, and I am looking forward to the challenge."

But what about transformation? Last year the government and the South African Rugby Union formalised their road-map for racial change across all levels of the sport.

By 2019 the target is to have a 50% black representation amongst players, coaches and officials from top to bottom - including at Springbok level.

However, Coetzee is confident transformation is another issue which can be tackled head on.

"I understand it is a unique situation which our country is in, looking at our past. But I wouldn't want to have it any differently. It is another aspect of South African rugby which one should embrace," he said.

"I was with the Stormers for six years, and transformation was never an issue. We won the Currie Cup with the most transformed team, and we were conference champions as well in Super Rugby with the most transformed team.

"I don't look at the colour of players. Transformation starts with oneself, and one's mindset. It's about creating opportunities across the colour spectrum for excellence.

Nelson Mandela and 1995 South Africa World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar
South Africa won the World Cup on home soil in 1995 - an event used by president Nelson Mandela to unite the nation a year after the first elections in which all races could vote

"With the players at my disposal we shouldn't make a big thing of it, because I am fed up with it. It is about making sure that not just the black players and players of colour, but all players in this country, if you are the right person I will have to select you if you perform. And that is all that matters to me."

So will Coetzee's tenure coincide with a significant shift in the style of South African rugby, which has historically been based on the power and size of the Afrikaner? He says the Springboks must evolve, while also maintaining tradition.

"We cannot just chuck away what has been the strength of Springbok rugby, that has to be maintained. We love abrasiveness and the collisions. That will never go away," he said.

"But one area where we can evolve is the speed at which we do things. That is what we need to get right.

"The big thing about evolving your game is having the right personnel to do that. It is not something you will see overnight - the game is tough at the top - but if you have the right people and they buy into the plan, then I think we can compete."

Regardless of transformation and the presence of a new coach, South African rugby was always set to enter a new era following the World Cup, with the retirements of three all-time great players and captains, in Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers and Fourie du Preez.

Chester Williams (right) shares a joke with captain Francois Pienaar during the 1995 World Cup
Chester Williams (right), seen here sharing a joke with captain Francois Pienaar, was the lone non-white player in South Africa's 1995 World Cup-winning side

Coetzee accepts replacing such men won't be easy, but will demand that the next captain leads the Springboks from the front.

"We have lost three great ambassadors from South African rugby. But there is a great opportunity for young players coming through," he added.

"The captain must be the guy who will always play, who is mentally ready and match sharp. First and foremost he has to help us win Test matches.

"Gone are the days when you have a captain who is there for his media skills. I want a captain who the players have respect for and want to follow."

This new era starts in earnest in June, when South Africa welcome Ireland for a three-Test series. It is only then Coetzee will get a true sense of what lies in store over the next four years.

"Any international job in South Africa is a damned tough job, but I am looking at it as a great opportunity," he added.

"We have exciting young talent coming through across the colour spectrum - and that excites me more than anything."

Hear from Allister Coetzee on the 5 live Rugby podcast, where England coach Eddie Jones was one of the studio guests.

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