Examining South African rugby coaches from the past 2 decades

As South African rugby is about to embark on yet another regime change, this time with Allister Coetzee entrusted with the (dreadful?) job title of Springbok coach, the Sport Freak decided to take a tour through the South African rugby annuals, examining SA rugby coaches from the past to present.

In this post we look at coaches who came before Allister Coetzee, looking at their flaws and what they contributed towards South African rugby. We then try to examine how Allister Coetzee will stack up against his predecessors.

One thing that we found was that despite South African rugby having a wealth of talented players, locally based coaches are a scarce commodity within the republic.

rudolf Straeuli springbok coachRudolf Straeuli 2002-2003

Aaah 2003 what a horrible year for South African rugby. Rudolf Straeuli was the Springbok coach leading a Springbok team into the world cup fresh from the infamous “Kamp Staaldraad.” For our international readers (outside of South Africa) that is the one where professional rugby players were forced to sit, naked in a pit  for days, kill chickens, and players were made to swear an oath of silence about the camp (rings a bell? I’m sure it does.)

Rudolf Straeuli kamp staaldraad

Springboks preparation for the 2003 Rugby World cup. The infamous “Kamp Staaldraad”


Long story short nor the players or public had much (if any) faith in Straeuli and his 1980’s coaching style and tactics. Straeuli was a fierce believer of bulldozing and out-muscling opponents. A type of Hitler character who believed South African rugby players are physically superior to their competitors.

Generally, Straeuli did not have a clue what to do or how to coach a Springbok team. Thus, it came as little surprise when the 2003 Springboks were the only Springbok team who could not advance past a world cup quarter final at the time.

We don’t want to delve too much on Straeuli since quite frankly he does not deserve it. In short when he got sacked in 2003 he managed to almost single-handedly destroy the reputation of South African rugby. Under Rudolf Straeuli teams no longer viewed South Africa as a threat but rather as an expected, albeit slightly competitive win.

Except for Kamp Staaldraad and an early world cup exit other scandals under the Straeuli coaching regime included, the Geo Cronje scandal and Springbok captain Corne Krige, elbowing Martin Johnson, and missing a hook shot in the ruck, knocking Andre Pretorius unconscious!

Corne Krige Elbow Martin JohnsonKrige later wrote in his autobiography that Streuli and the team knew they were not going to beat England at Twickenham and were given instructions to employ bully tactics and generally play as dirty as possible, without getting caught, of course, hoping to “unsettle” England, needless to say,this horribly backfired on the Boks and lead to a reputation that still sticks to this day.

Generally, teams, international spectators and referees view South Africa as a “dirty playing” team using foul tactics. The significance of this should not be underestimated as it had cost South Africa a number of test match losses over the years.

Straeuli still holds the record for the Springbok coach with the worst win/loss ratio winning only 52% of his matches, nice one Rudolf!

jake white springbok coachJake White 2004-2007

After the horrid 4-years under Rudolf Straeuli, in stepped Jake White, at the time he was everything Strauli wasn’t.  Youthful, energetic, well spoken, modern…smart.

Slowly over the course of 4-years White began to rebuild the dire mess Rudolf Straeuli left South African rugby in, managing to move the Boks from 7th place on the IRB world ranking to 1st place all in a space of 2-years, winning the tri-nations in his first year of Springbok head coach!

Jake White who had won a rugby world cup with the baby Boks in 2002 (SA U/21’s), and also served as technical advisor, under the successful Nick Mallett coaching regime, was both experienced and well familiar with the current crop of Springbok players who were coming through the ranks at the time, which allowed him to easily identify and develop his core group of players.

Needless to say, it was NOT plain sailing for Jake White at the start, despite winning the tri-nations in 20004, his record for the first two years was okay, but by no means great. Yet Jake White continued to stick with what he believed in and he superbly managed to peak at just the right time, defending their title as rugby World Cup favourites in 2007!

Sadly for South African rugby, political interference was something White did not take kindly to, often too outspoken for South African rugby administrators liking they (SARFU) controversially decided to ditch White in 2007 despite White winning the Tri Nations, and World Cup, not even to mention a host of other achievements, such as Jake White winning coach of the year and the Springboks winning team of the year under Jakes guidance.

To put this into perspective SARFU (now known as SARU) ditching of White, at the time, would have been equal to the All Blacks firing Steve Hansen or Graeme Henry after winning the World cup and coach of the year i.e. mind boggling!

Jake White had an impressive win/loss ratio of close to 70%, making him the most successful coach in South African rugby history!

peter de villiers springbok coach

Peter De Villiers 2007-2011

Next came the most outspoken and colourful character South African rugby has ever seen, Mr Peter DeVilliers. Before we continue, treat yourself to this clip!
Whether DeVilliers was a good coach or not is a highly debatable subject till this day!

You see the squad Jake White managed to build up was so strong, so experienced and at the time still relatively young. DeVilliers, perhaps to his credit, made little changes to the core group of players when he took over in 2008.

In fact, DeVilliers changed almost nothing, even using the same tactics and selecting the same captain. Again this is not a criticism of DeVilliers and we give him credit for this, not wanting to stamp down his own authority or trying to fix something which was not broken at the time, is something we applaud “Peter De Villiers, aka “Divvy”, aka “Snorre” for.

The above however is also sadly which ultimately led to the downfall of Peter De Villiers’s. When South Africa departed to the 2011 World Cup hosted by New-Zealand, the country was divided.

Bismarck Du Plessis was emerging as the best hooker in the world, however, De Villiers was unwilling to drop then captain John Smith. Even going as far as trying to convert him into a prop to make way for Bismarck at hooker, something which sadly didn’t work out too well and Bismarck had to play from the bench.

In short the Boks departed to the world cup with many pundits believing the group of players DeVilliers selected to represent South Africa on the global stage was too old, a trend which would go on and continue to haunt South African Rugby until this day.

South Africa got knocked out of the 2011 World Cup quarter-final by Australia and Bryce Lawrence, remember him? The Boks lost by 2-points, going down 9-11, however, most experts agree that, had it not been for (extremely) poor decision making by Lawrence, who clearly favoured Australia on the day, the Boks would have continued on to the semi-final, where they would have faced arch rivals New-Zealand. What would have happened from there is anyone’s guess?

So poor was Bryce Lawrence’s decision making in the controversial quarter-final clash that the International Rugby Board (IRB) recalled him as an international referee , due to poor performance, shortly after the World Cup. The South African rugby public was enraged and Lawrence fell victim to a massive online petition, a number of radio prank calls and even death threats! Today he works as an administrator for the New Zealand rugby union’s referee association.

Unfortunately for Peter De Villiers and John Smit, Bryce Lawrence or not, they lost the game and were heading back home after the quarter-finals. DeVilliers stated on numerous occasions, “judge me on my world cup performance,” and judge they did! His head rolled after the 2011 world cup.

Was DeVilliers a good coach? It is hard to say, yes he did benefit enormously from Jake White’s success and as White’s core group of players started ageing and his tactics became outdated Coetzee’s record started to drop.

This can perhaps be seen as an indication that De Villiers did indeed only had a good record because of Jake White, however, we like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Generally, the players respected Peter Div and he did some good things, and some very stupid things, but generally we will judge him on his record which is pretty impressive.

De Villiers became the first ever Springbok coach to win against New Zealand in Dunedin, nicknamed the House of Pain and he also managed to win a British and Irish Lions series, furthermore his overall record against New Zealand was (very) good, so he does get a tick in our book.

Peter Devilliers ended with an average 62% win/loss ratio,  however,  “Divvy”  had an impressive 57% winning percentage against the All Blacks.

heyneke meyer springbok coachHeyneke “Heineken” Meyer…will save the day…surely? 2011-2015

Heineken Meyer…will go down in South African rugby annuals as yet another, highly, controversial figure, the mere mentioning of his name is enough to get blood pressures boiling and arguments started.

Before taking over as South African coach Meyer had an impeccable record. Meyer had been involved with the Bulls from 2000, he took over the head coaching position of the Pretoria-based franchise in 2005 and was largely responsible for the huge turnaround in Blue Bulls rugby.

At a time where the Bulls were the whipping boys of Super Rugby, consistently finishing bottom of the log Heyneke Meyer managed to turn things around in spectacular fashion leading the Bulls to not one but two Super Rugby titles…surely just the type of coach South African rugby needed at the time!?

There was a lot of expectation and a general feel of optimism amongst South African rugby supporters when Meyer was appointed as Springbok coach. Unfortunately, for South African rugby supporters and Heyneke Meyer, the optimism quickly turned to pessimism.

In his first couple of years in charge, of South African rugby, Heyneke Meyer had an impeccable record, going undefeated to all teams except for New-Zealand. Meyer won 2 grand slam tours, back to back, and maintained a (very) good record, however, the public perception of Meyer started to become worse and worse largely due to his selection policy and the outdated, tactics that Meyer employed.

Meyer was a traditionalist, in every sense of the word. At a time where world rugby was undergoing a revolution, with the emphasis shifting to a much more attacking, ball in hand style of play, Meyer was unwilling to make the necessary changes both in playing personnel and tactics to “modernise” the Springboks style of play.

Meyer stuck to what worked for him at the Bulls, which was arguably the single biggest factor which lead to some embarrassing defeats and ultimately the firing of Heyneke Meyer. While there is no denying Meyer was a brilliant coach, back in the day, he struggled to adapt the Springboks playing style to modern day rugby.Meyer continued to play a largely forward orientated game, with most of the emphasis going towards kicking, defence and forcing the penalty.

Opposition teams soon realised this and easily found ways to counter the Springboks playing style. The good record Meyer maintained at the start of his tenure rapidly started to deteriorate with a string of embarrassing losses.

The above combined with Heyneke Meyer’s unshaken belief in a core group of players who started to age and were no longer on top of their game  further contributed to the negative public sentiment regarding Meyer as South African head coach.

Meyer build what was known as the golden oldies, bringing players like Victor Matfield, Fourie DuPreez, Jacque Fourie and Juan Smith out of retirement, while being reluctant to give younger, inform, players a chance. The public did not take kindly to this and believed, Meyers reluctance to select younger players was responsible for the string of embarrassing losses South African rugby started to suffer.

Like Peter De Villiers before him, Meyer said, “judge me on my World Cup performance.” When the Springboks departed for England in 2015 it was clear the only thing that would save Meyer was a world cup win, anything less and he would be gone.

The England 2015 World Cup under Meyer was largely a case of deja vu for Springbok supporters. An embarrassing loss, a couple of good wins and the inability to beat the All Blacks lead to South Africa getting knocked out in the semifinal by New Zealand however, they did win 3rd place, as a consolation prize.

The Springboks finishing 3rd in the 2015 World Cup perhaps summarises Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as Springbok coach to perfection. The Boks, under Meyer, were good, competitive but inconsistent and by no means great.

Heyneke Meyer Record

Opposition Team Games Played Won Drawn Lost Win/Loss Ration
Argentina 9 7 1 1 78%
Australia 7 4 0 3 57%
England 5 4 1 0 80%
France 1 1 0 0 100%
Ireland 2 1 0 1 50%
Italy 2 2 0 0 100%
Japan 1 0 0 1 0%
New Zealand 8 1 0 7 13%
Wales 5 4 0 1 80%

The above table makes for dreadful reading to any South African rugby supporter. As can be seen from the table above, under Meyer the Springboks had a string of embarrassing defeats.

  • Meyer became the first coach, in the history of South African rugby, to lose against Argentina.
  • Meyer only managed a 57% winning record against Australia, which is terrible considering Australian rugby was in horrible shape during the Meyer tenure. It was expected that he should have won much more matches against the Wallabies.
  • The Springboks suffered a horrible loss against Ireland under the Meyer regime.
  • Meyer has the worst record of any Springbok coach against New Zealand. Meyer only managed to win a single match against New Zealand, resulting in a miserable 13% win/loss ratio against South African rugby’s benchmark team. Many critics claim South Africa should not have won that game had it not been for the TV producer.
  • Do we even need to mention Japan? Meyer managed to make world headlines, for all the wrong reasons, when he became the first ever Springbok coach to lose against Japan.
  • Meyer became only the 2nd coach in South African rugby history to lose against Wales.

When examining the above it is clear Meyer was not a successful coach. Yet the Boks were always competitive under Meyer, we won’t give him our mark of approval, although we can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Meyer received another 4-years?

Allister Coetzee South African rugby coachAllister Coetzee

Now it is Allister Coetzee’s turn to take over the thrown. There is no denying Coetzee does have an impressive resume. Coetzee, much like Jake White is a coach who came through the ranks. First coaching the baby Boks (SA U/21 team), Coetzee later formed part of Jake White’s successful world cup winning team, in the role of assistant coach. He also became the Stormers longest serving head coach and managed to work wonders with the Cape Town-based franchise, developing what was, and still is, the best defence Super Rugby has ever seen.

With that being said, we do have some concerns with Allister Coetzee, specifically Coetzee’s inability to never have won a Super Rugby playoff game, despite the Stormers appearing in a number of playoff matches under Coetzee. Furthermore, the outdated playing style Allister Coetzee used with the Stormers combined with his inability to develop a successful offence are all reasons for concern.

However, we do like to think of Allister as a smart coach, someone who has been there and done that, hopefully, he will draw on his experience and realise more emphasis needs to be placed on attacking rugby. The squad Coetzee selected to face Ireland is okay…not great, but okay.


One thing is clear, however, Coetzee is taking the complete opposite approach to Heyneke Meyer, favouring in form players and youth over age and experience, whether this will pay off remains to be seen.

For now, South African rugby supporters can only hope and wish for the best, at the moment, Coetzee has the Sport Freak’s stamp of approval we sincerely hope Coetzee will be a successful coach and learn from the mistakes of the past.

We wish him and the Springboks all the best for the upcoming Ireland series. Go Bokke!

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