JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Jun 23 – Coach Allister Coetzee, defence specialist Brendan Venter and skipper Warren Whiteley and his Golden Lions have been key factors in the resurgence of South Africa this year.
Should they beat France at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg Saturday, the Springboks will complete a 3-0 series whitewash eight months after being jeered by supporters.
The anger of the crowd in Durban followed a humiliating 57-15 defeat by arch foes New Zealand, the heaviest South African home loss since first competing in 1891.
It was the darkest day of a bleak season for the two-time world champions, worse even than losing for the first time at home to Ireland, away to Argentina, and to Italy.
The first season in charge for Coetzee was calamitous with eight defeats in 12 Tests a calendar-year record for the Springboks.
As the public and media clamoured for the ex-Western Stormers coach to be axed a quarter of the way through a four-year contract, the 54-year-old realised dramatic changes were necessary.
Out went several of his assistants, who had been appointed by the national rugby body, and skipper and hooker Adriaan Strauss retired, avoiding the embarrassment of being ditched.
In came defence coach Venter, widely recognised as one of the brightest minds in rugby, a new captain in No. 8 Whiteley, and far more Golden Lions made the starting line-up.
The man management of Coetzee, the brains of Venter, the drive of Whiteley and skills of the Lions were to prove crucial as the Springboks sought redemption.
Former provincial scrum-half Coetzee had three pre-season training camps, which were denied to him last year because of his late appointment as successor to out-of-favour Heyneke Meyer.
“It was suicidal going into the 2016 season without pre-season training camps. We played with fire and got badly burnt,” reflected Coetzee.
Of all the ills that inflicted the 2016 Springboks, a sieve-like defence was among the most glaring, with numerous soft tries conceded.
– Venter impact –
Enter Venter, a former centre who was part of the 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning squad and combines coaching with a medical practice in Cape Town.
His impact was obvious in the 37-14 and 37-15 triumphs over France in Pretoria and Durban that clinched the series with a match to spare.
In the last quarter of the first Test and the third quarter of the second, France camped in Springbok territory, attacking relentlessly only to be repeatedly repulsed.
The South Africans tackled with conviction — a far cry from the previous campaign in which seven of the last eight Tests were lost.
“It was heartbreaking last season to see Springboks taking forever to get up after making a tackle,” lamented TV analyst and former Springboks coach Nick Mallett.
With the media sights set on Coetzee, Strauss escaped lightly for lacklustre leadership, poor performances and post-match interviews that bordered on pantomime.
As the team stumbled from one disaster to another, Strauss kept insisting that a new dawn was on the horizon. In fact, things only got worse.
Whiteley has been an inspirational leader of the Lions, by far the best-performing Super Rugby team in South Africa, using a potent mix of running and kicking.
Unassuming off the field, the loose forward leads by example — defending, attacking, seemingly always close to the heart of the action.
“I think it is fantastic that Warren can take his Springboks to his home ground tomorrow (Saturday) with a 2-0 lead over France,” said Mallett.
“Imagine the confidence a whitewash will give South Africa ahead of the Rugby Championship. With these performances we can quickly get back to No. 2 in the world.”
Tougher Tests than France lie ahead, notably matches in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand within four weeks from late August.
But the Boks have got a spring in their step again and even the harshest critics of Coetzee have lauded him for accepting his mistakes and changing course.
Hard-hitting Business Day columnist Mark Keohane says Coetzee must get credit for identifying Venter, Whiteley and his fellow Lions as catalysts of change.
“The key is to keep this group of players and coaches together and allow them to develop and learn from the tougher challenges that lie ahead,” he wrote.