When Coetzee’s feet touched terra firma after the 90-minute flight from Johannesburg, the 53-year-old was completing a long and winding round trip, returning to the city where he established his rugby roots.
Coetzee was home and in the afterglow of his first victory as South Africa’s new head coach, he was loving every minute of it. Yet his background is living history of another journey, that of South African rugby through the troubled and divisive era. When the colour bar invoked by the racist regime prevented talented players like the young Eastern Cape scrum-half from testing his skills with and against whites.
He was actually born in Grahamstown, a small town of around 70,000, around 110km to the northeast of Port Elizabeth, and a minor staging post along the 900km route up the Indian Ocean coastline to Durban.
To get there takes you through some beautiful terrain, the road cutting inland from the port city and snaking between the numerous private game reserves that tourists visit in the hope of admiring Africa’s big five: the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo.
In the interests of disclosure, this correspondent saw an elephant and a couple of rhino backsides through binoculars about 1000 yards away. At least that’s what the guide told us, though they could have been large grey rocks for all we knew.
Coetzee lost his father Philip, nicknamed Flippie, to a car accident when he was in primary school. Flippie, by all accounts, had all the talent necessary to become an international fly-half in the 1960s but his country did not consider him for selection, such was the outright discrimination during the time.
Errol Tobias and Avril Williams stand as the only non-white players capped during the apartheid era from 1948 to 1994.
That was the world Allister “Toetie” Coetzee grew up and played much of his rugby in. He was making a name for himself as, to quote a Durban journalist, “a cocky 13-year- old” who was promoted from the Mary Waters HS U13B team to their U18 A side after just one game.
“Our school was up on the hill and the rugby field was down in Lavender Valley,” Coetzee told the Durban City Press as he reminisced having been appointed head coach of the Boks.
“The first team always warmed up at the school and then walked down to the field. There was a corrugated iron fence around the field, but it was beautiful... silver... so it almost felt as if you were entering an arena like the Roman gladiators in that scenario.”
It was in Port Elizabeth, PE to all who live here, that Coetzee really cut his teeth in the game.
“I was born an hour’s drive away in Grahamstown and came here for teacher training when I was 19,” he told the Irish Examiner in a quiet moment after he had faced the South African media in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday.
“And when I came out of teacher training college, I was a part-time teacher and part-time rugby player, playing all my rugby here.”
Coetzee may be small in stature but he was always the leader. On his appointment as Springboks coach, his primary school teacher told of little Toetie being chosen to recite a poem in Afrikaans to visiting education inspectors. Its first line read ‘Ek’s ‘n dapper muis’ — I am a brave mouse.
In PE he taught at Gelvan Park Primary School and captained the South Eastern Districts Rugby Union. It was only in 1992, when apartheid was being dismantled, that he was selected as a Junior Springbok. Before then he represented the non-racial South African Rugby Union, which stood in opposition to the white only South African Rugby Board of the apartheid era. Today’s post-apartheid governing body, initially known as the South African Rugby Football Union was formed in 1992 when SARU and SARB were merged.
Coetzee finally represented and captained Eastern Province, playing Currie Cup between 1992 and 1996 before embarking on the coaching pathway that would take him via EP and the Sharks to a job on Jake White’s Springboks staff for the victorious 2007 World Cup campaign. This week he returns as the main man. “It’s good to be back, they say it’s the friendly city.” he said.