A furious Allister Coetzee has claimed that the South African Rugby Union were intent on undermining his position as head coach, that he was considered little more than a token on account of his race and that the intention was always to have him replaced with Rassie Erasmus.
With the 2019 World Cup fast approaching, the state of South African rugby has never been so grim.
A cursory glance at Twitter or any one of a number of columns in the South African media this afternoon and it will immediately become apparent that there is little sympathy for Allister Coetzee, who was today relieved of his position has Springboks head coach.
In a bruising two year reign, Coetzee has presided over some of the most galling Springbok defeats in history, including losses to Ireland, Wales and Italy, which left Coetzee with a win ratio of 44% (the fourth worst record of any Springbok coach).
A number of unsavoury records marked his tenure including a lowest ever world ranking for South Africa’s national team and the country’s heaviest defeat in 111 years as a rampaging All Blacks trounced the Boks 57-0 in Albany.
But in an incredible 19-page letter submitted to the SARU, Coetzee has stated his belief that his position was never tenable given the interference and lack of support from the country’s rugby governing body.
Among the most incendiary claims contained in that letter was a belief that the South African Rugby Union had always intended to undermine his performance as national team head coach by bringing in Rassie Erasmus, who had been overlooked upon Coetzee’s appointment two years ago.
According to Coetzee:
“You informed me that a further aspect of the decision is that my services will be terminated regardless of the outcome of the anticipated performance review, as contemplated by my employment contract, and, should I wish to remain in SARU’s employment, I will be reduced to a ceremonial coach, and further that Johan Erasmus has already been employed to replace me and is already performing the duties of the Springbok Coach.
“Should I be reduced to the position of a ceremonial coach I would have to face the indignity of reporting to Rassie.”
But even more worryingly, Coetzee suggested that the SARU were intent on creating the illusion of racial equality as he explains in his letter:
“This is particularly so in light of the fact that it is common cause within SARU that it was always the intention to replace Heyneke Meyer with Rassie but SARU wanted to avoid any controversy based on race emanating from such appointment.
“In order to avoid the controversy a stratagem has been devised to use me, as a person of colour, to mask the ultimate aim by offering me the Springbok coaching position, but that I would be starved of the necessary resources which would enable me to satisfactorily perform my duties.”
Another former Springbok head coach, Peter de Villiers, has also claimed that he was undermined by the Union and had warned Coetzee to expect the same treatment.
Coetzee had had a distinguished managerial career before signing up to the Springboks gig, becoming the first black coach to lead a provincial side and winning two Currie cups.
His claims of a conspiracy to undermine his position as head coach has however been roundly rejected by the South African rugby public who had grown disillusioned by the brand of rugby his side were playing, the embarrassing defeats and the often dismaying team selections.
His remarks regarding racial inequality, however, may well be closer to the truth than many South Africans would care to admit.
The adoption of quotas and the intention to adopt a policy where 50% of the team should be people of colour by 2019 was roundly applauded by the international community as a transformative step in South African sport.
But that is not to say that the policy has been entirely embraced in South Africa, with many contending that it places unreasonable restrictions on the national team and makes them less competitive.
South Africa, however, has a population that is 90% black and the lack of representation of black players in the national team set-up has been noteworthy.
It could be argued that it is not the quota system that has made South Africa less competitive internationally but rather the lack of funds (the South African Rugby Union reported a loss of R23.3 million in the previous financial year). Mismanagement has been a factor and so has an inability to prevent promising players from moving to wealthy European sides.
The many factors at play in South African rugby are so unique to that country that we as international observers often fail to understand the delicate blend of politics, integration and community interaction involved in creating a great rugby team.
Whoever follows in the footsteps of Coetzee (and it may well be Erasmus) must be mindful of their nation’s painful history, its precarious present and its uncertain future.
There is no easy fix for South Africa and the next administration must take a long-term view of what a successful South Africa might look like.
South Africa has been slow to react to the threat posed by the super-rich European clubs to their country’s future.
But there still exists within South African rugby a well of quality young players for whom the 2019 World Cup may arrive too early but who will certainly be in line for 2023 in France.
With the right management, South Africa can cast aside the pressure of what they used to be and instead focus on what they could yet become.
Kevin Boyle, Pundit Arena