Now with Rovigo Delta – while coaching Namibia – we catch up with the former Springbok boss
“It’s not something I can give a straight answer on!” replies an optimistic Allister Coetzee when asked how he ended up at Rovigo, coaching the Delta team in the Peroni Top10 league.
Nestled in the Veneto region of northwest Italy is this famous club which in its heyday brought in foreign players like Naas Botha, Willie Ofahengaue, Nick Mallett and many more, to the sides of many Italian pillars. It is no longer a favorite region for world stars, they are still integrated into Italian rugby. And they also have a world-renowned coach at the helm.
But to understand how former Springboks and Stormers head coach Coetzee ended up there, you have to understand what’s been going on in recent years.
“I was seeing my contract in Japan (with Canon Eagles) when Covid hit,” he says World Rugby. “I went home – family first – and I never thought about going back to Japan and contract extensions or those kinds of discussions were never on the table, because it was a fairly uncertain for everyone.
“I was panicking to get a flight home before all borders closed and I just did. I was on the second to last flight from Asia to South Africa. It was a tough time, terrible times, uncertain times, you know? I just got out and obviously everything got out of control with the pandemic. And I was stuck in South Africa for a year, no rugby at all. No involvement anywhere.
“It was quite an important moment to be reunited with my family, because I had been on the road for a while. And just to reflect on life in general.
“The uncertainty was a challenge and as a family we have been hit hard by Covid. We lost four family members – my father, my sister and my brother-in-law on my wife’s side and my mother. So it was quite a difficult time for us. Massive, massive. But the good thing about it all is that if I had been busy with rugby, I would have missed family (time). I wouldn’t have been there.
Through a time of crisis, Coetzee believes her family is closer, stronger, for this. He was fortunate to be able to support them financially and in the meantime he was able to spend quality time with his two grandchildren, two daughters, their families and his wife’s loved ones.
Rugby was always going to come back though. And while there was nothing on the immediate horizon for Coetzee, he started getting messages. And that’s why it’s not entirely clear. So Coetzee explains.
“I coached with Nelie Smith, the former Springbok player and coach,” he begins. “I was with him in the Eastern Province from 1999 to 2001. And thanks to him, I met this citrus grower from Italy. He often came to South Africa to visit Nelie and that’s how I met Danilo Ortolani, and we were in regular contact.
“He texted me when the Springboks played Padova in 2017, and he came to visit me at the hotel. He told me he was on the board of Rovigo, this little city in Italy, passionate about rugby. He said that if I ever got tired of intense coaching at the highest level, to come to Rovigo. It was said in jest, you know?
“Strangely, while I was at home (during Covid), he was texting me: ‘What are you doing?’ He said once things opened up to come and visit the club, and that’s when it all started.
He spent ten days there last year and he got trapped.
And now he is part of Italian rugby, hoping to develop players who can not only represent the Azzuri, but thrive, challenging the best teams in the world. Quite a turnaround, given Coetzee was in charge of the Boks that day in 2016 when Italy beat them 20-18 in Florence.
Coetzee says he sees a bottom-up approach taking root in the country, with Italy U20’s incredible efforts in recent years needing the chance to keep rolling with rising standards elsewhere. Franco Smith is being name-checked for his focus on creating new Emerging Italy or Italy A fixtures, with a closer look at those steps between the base game, the United Rugby Championship and then the Test level.
What they’re still up against, says Coetzee, is the relative number of athletes they can work with, compared to the sport’s megapowers.
But if it’s the Rovigo team, how on earth do you juggle the need for victory and the hope of helping emerging Italian talent find their way to the top?
“There is a huge expectation for Rovigo to do well, but the other part of my process is to make sure that in our region, in Rovigo and Ferrara (and others in the region) and the smaller clubs around us is that there is alignment here.
“I make sure I’m training coaches, developing coaches. I’ve done a lot of coaching clinics with coaches just in the Rovigo area. That’s where you start, you know, and hopefully things can grow from here, get bigger and influence more teams.
So while the club is in the league play-off zone, they can try to bring people in. Every now and then a talent comes into your orbit as well, and other coaches hope you can help them develop. Like with Giacomo De Rea, who was sent to Rovigo from Benetton to try to play – a player who has the ability to play ten or 15, and who has taken a big step to be involved with the Italy team during the recent Six Nations.
Of course, while in Italy Coetzee is plotting another Rugby World Cup qualifier for Namibia, who must triumph at the 2022 Africa Cup in July if they are to clinch the Africa One spot in the pool. A, alongside France, New Zealand, Uruguay and, you guessed it, Italy.
Which is another rugby plate to spin. So where is Namibia – and the planning process – at the moment?
Coetzee tells us: “Namibia have so many talented players, but they obviously lack a high performance mentality in their own country at the moment. They don’t compete in strong club competition, they don’t compete in their neighboring country’s Currie Cup or lower division, for example.
“It really is the land of the brave! With (not much more) two million inhabitants, you can imagine the number of rugby players. But they have guys who are really passionate about the game and people who need a bit of direction on how they take what they have and in a short period of time produce some quality. I’m really happy to be able to contribute in a small way.
“Before the African Cup, I plan to organize a three-week camp in South Africa, at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, to meet the best team possible. That is what I am busy with at the moment. boys played in November against Zimbabwe and Kenya so we have a good idea of what happened there and they won both games.
“So it will be just so that these players and a number of other Namibian-born players can qualify. That’s my big goal, to see them qualify, represent the country and complete the team that played in November and even strengthen it. Then the focus is on the three weeks, because what else can you do? Because the boys are spread all over, from America to Europe, some of them in Spain .
“My job right now is to make sure they understand the way we want to play, their strengths or their weaknesses, just through Zoom meetings on the internet and (passing on) the policies of how you want to attack and how we want to improve, and just to keep in touch with them.The most important and most important thing is to make sure they are well conditioned once they join us.
“We have also scheduled three games before the tournament. So in Cape Town we hope to play against Maties – Stellenbosch University. We are stepping it up against Western Province. And then I just have to finalize the last match, maybe against an A team from Italy and it will have to be decided whether it will be in Italy or in South Africa.
Then it’s the Cup, with Burkina Faso first then, potentially Côte d’Ivoire, before a final. A race we’ve seen before in Namibia, but the next big challenge nonetheless.
Which means Coetzee is currently playing a role in helping two nations improve their rugby fortunes. A job that the 58-year-old coach says he appreciates a lot.
For so many, this coach’s name will be more easily associated with playing the role of the Springboks before Rassie Erasmus arrived and overhauled so much about the setup in 2018. The fortunes of a proud nation have been completely turned around . We also talked a lot about the restrictions Coetzee faced, how after his rule there was much more alignment between the provinces and the Boks while other selection avenues were opening up – considered masterstrokes of the current regime. But regardless, there could be a lot of things from that era that influence Coetzee now.
On this subject, he simply says: “There are a lot of negatives to (his end with the Boks), but my philosophy of life is: no matter what is thrown at you, you are always going to try to do it. achievable and as positive as possible, so I learned a lot during this time and it made me stronger as a person and helped me become solution-oriented.
“You just have to try to think outside the box all the time, but not every bad thing is bad unless you let it. So if you think your potential is better than that, go for it. You use your potential to the maximum to make things possible and positive.
Tear up with Rovigo, qualify for a World Cup and help promote supreme Italian talent and things couldn’t get much more positive. Of course, months of rugby testing lie ahead, but it’s great to be in the thick of the game again.
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