Allister Coetzee is only a few weeks into his new role as head coach of the Springboks but he’ll be wishing for more hours in the days ahead to allow him get South Africa up to speed for the Rugby Championship, following his team’s unconvincing series win over Ireland this month.
Speaking frankly, Ireland’s injury list prior to their tour was catastrophic and therefore any degree of success over three Tests in South Africa, where they were previously winless, seemed out of the question.
Instead, we’re sat here today trying to ascertain how a three Test series that seemed so straightforward on paper turned into one of the more memorable in recent history, going down to the final minutes with Ireland desperately looking for a series-clinching try.
Irish supporters, in the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat, seemed to be torn between trying to look at the bigger picture and accepting how much had been achieved over the last month or were spitting at the fact that a Test series win had fallen through their fingers.
Ireland’s depth proved to be stronger than expected – Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall and Jordi Murphy all made big steps up in quality, while Jack McGrath, based on the last month, has put himself in a two-horse race with Mako Vunipola for the British and Irish Lions loosehead slot next year.
The reality is that South Africa were poor, both in defeat at Newlands against 14 men and for large swathes of the following two Tests that they won.
Faf de Klerk, the find of the series for the Springboks, excelled at scrum-half, in a position where they Boks desperately need someone to try and fill the large shoes of Fourie du Preez. However, they’re a side littered with problems.
Their game management throughout the three Tests wasn’t up to standard, highlighting how raw Elton Jantjies still is when it comes to international rugby.
His cross-field kick for JP Pietersen’s try in Port Elizabeth was excellent but in terms of controlling the tempo of South Africa’s attack, he was found wanting – too eager to distribute the ball out to his centres without seeing what’s on and also suspect defensively as Ireland continually gained ground when deciding to carry the ball down his channel.
South Africa’s third Test win might have clinched the series but it wasn’t an accomplished performance by any stretch, more a victory built around desperation to win with only 32 percent possession and 27 percent territory.
A lack of leadership isn’t a surprise following the retirements of several leading veterans but that’s when the side’s senior players such as Tendai Mtawarira, Eben Etzebeth, JP Pietersen and Willie le Roux are needed most to take control.
Warren Whiteley, the Lions captain, added real authority off the bench at Ellis Park and again when starting in Port Elizabeth, and although Adriaan Strauss will retain the captaincy in the Rugby Championship, as confirmed on Monday, Whiteley needs to be right there alongside him as another leader the Springboks can turn to when the pressure’s on.
Coetzee hinted that he was facing a major rebuilding job when he took over and the truth is that even having beaten a depleted Ireland 2-1 in the series, South Africa will head into the Rugby Championship looking some way off the standard of New Zealand and also Australia, who despite their 3-0 home series defeat to England, never disgraced themselves.
Those harsh truths that have been partially covered up by the series win are likely to be exposed through August to October.
Ben Coles, Pundit Arena