His voice slightly croaky after taking a training session with the Namibian national team, Allister Coetzee spoke enthusiastically to World Rugby on Wednesday about his return to international coaching.
Coetzee, 58, has been absent from the test arena since losing his job as Springboks head coach in December 2017, and his last coaching appointment was before the COVID-19 outbreak in Japan with the Canon Eagles.
But having spent the last year back in South Africa to be with family during troubled times, Coetzee is delighted to be out on the field again working directly with top-level players, even if shouting instructions left him a little hoarse.
“It’s been my first time on the field again that’s why my voice sounds a bit different,” he explained. “But I am really enjoying being back on the field and working with an enthusiastic group of players.
“I met them for the first time on Saturday evening in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, after I’d flown directly from Cape Town and the connecting flight (to the Ivory Coast) was there. I have never worked with any of the players or management before but it’s been good with the way we have integrated and it’s been going well.”
A Lill’ helping hand
One of Coetzee’s first decisions was to appoint experienced forward Pieter-Jan Van Lill as his captain for the upcoming matches in the Africa Cup. This Saturday’s fixture against the Ivory Coast and the one against Madagascar the following Wednesday will double as Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifiers.
“We will be tested, I am sure. If it was in Namibia, in Windhoek, then maybe I’d say the favourite tag is the right one. But coming out here is different,” he said.
“I haven’t seen Ivory Coast or Madagascar play, there is no video analysis. But I know the Ivorians are quite a big pack and some of their players play in France in Pro D2, so it won’t be a walkover and it’ll be a test for this side who haven’t played together since the World Cup.”
Van Lill, whose club side Vannes just missed out on promotion to the Top 14 in France, will be assisted by Lesley Klim, the winger who plays in the second tier of English club rugby with Jersey Reds.
Both players appeared at Rugby World Cup 2019 and will form the experienced spine of the team at the next tournament in France – if the Welwitschias get there.
“It's a great honour and privilege to be able to help out at international level again,” Coetzee added.
“This is a big job and I think the most important thing is to ensure that Namibia qualifies for Rugby World Cup 2023."
For Coetzee, getting meaningful competition and the squad profile right will be two key factors on their journey over the next two years.
But he has stressed that the focus will be on evolution not revolution as he looks to build on the solid platforms put in place by Welshman Phil Davies who oversaw the last two of Namibia’s six Rugby World Cup campaigns to date.
“Phil has laid a platform here, and from what I have seen and heard a lot of good stuff has been done,” he said.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel and start all over again, we need to take the strategic planning that worked and build on that.
“In the next two years my main focus will be to ensure we get a squad of players who are willing to represent their country at the next World Cup.
“I think the composition of your team is so important, you need to go to the World Cup with a team that is not too old but has got enough experience.
“I suppose that’s what all the international teams will aim for, and they’ll bring in some young blood for the next two years.
“We have got quite a nice group of young players and I will be monitoring them from now until 2023.”
Time to ‘Currie’ favour
Coetzee also wants to expose his players to a good level of competition outside of the test windows, particularly for Namibia’s domestic players.
In the past Namibia have benefitted from entering a Welwitschias XV in the Currie Cup and Coetzee would like this to happen again.
“The only snag at this point is we don’t get enough opportunity to play in a league or a competition like the Fijians or Samoans,” he said, referring to the Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika teams that are set to be involved in a new competition in New Zealand.
“Unfortunately, we are in a situation where we are not even playing in the Currie Cup. It is massively important that we are playing in competitions like that and I hope that can be achieved in 2022.
“That’s what this team needs to get better and not just be brilliant for 40 minutes against the All Blacks and then not be able to sustain that.”
Under Davies, Namibia were the lowest ranked team at Rugby World Cup 2015, but turned in a number of really good performances.
The Welwitschias were certainly not disgraced in going down to a 58-14 defeat to the All Blacks and earnt their first-ever Rugby World Cup point after losing to Georgia by the narrowest of margins.
Rugby World Cup winner
Coetzee experienced the high of winning the Rugby World Cup in 2007 as part of the Springboks’ coaching staff.
Needless to say, Namibia’s goals will be slightly lower than the Springboks if they manage to make it to France, especially as the Africa 1 qualifier is in the same pool as the All Blacks, France, Italy and Americas 1.
“It is what it is, we can’t do anything about that,” said Coetzee. “Our objectives won’t change – we want to win a game.
“They got close in 2015 and in 2019 they targeted Canada, but that game got cancelled due to the typhoon in Japan.
“With World Cups you need a bit of luck at times. I remember in 2007, the left winger (Mark) Cueto ‘scored’ in the corner but Danie Rossouw managed to get his foot on the chalk.”
Cueto has had to chalk that moment up to experience, as did Coetzee when he lost his job as Springboks head coach.
Coetzee, however, said the experience had made him stronger.
“I suppose sometimes things don't go your way, but adversity has just made people stronger, so as long as you learn from the process, then you are not a loser, you are always a winner – you either win or you learn, and that has always been my philosophy.”