The Springbok Team and the RWC.

The entire rugby world was waiting for Friday afternoon and the announcement of both the South African and English rugby squads for the looming Rugby World Cup event.

The England team was announced with little fanfare, providing pundits with some surprises, and some reasons for English supporters to mutter, as they always do. Muttering is a particularly English pastime. The surprises: The wayward son of London’s Roehampton, Danny Cirpiani, misses out despite his attempts to rehabilitate his career and his own somewhat carefree approach to discipline and the law. Another surprise was the exclusion of Luther Burrell, who lost out to ex-leaguer Sam Burgess in the final selection. George Kruis, the Saracens lock, is in and Dave Attwood is surprisingly left out, Kieran Brookes will prop up the scrum but serial sideways scrummer Alex Corbisiero will not be seen in 2015.

However, we are not concerned with Stuart Lancashire’s selections. We were waiting for Heyneke Meyer and his team.

The rugby world wanted to see the Springbok squad that would travel over to the United Kingdom to participate in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Some waited to see what the Boks would look like as prospective opponents. Others simply out of rugby curiosity, what would one of the top four or five sides in the world look like? Many of the supporter variety waited to see who would be in the team we would be supporting in September and October, come hell or high water.

The announcement event was set up to look like a massive public presentation with a darkened stage, a walkway built over a shimmering blue swimming pool, spotlights and drama. It fell a bit flat in that respect. The event was closed to the public, except for hotel residents and their guests, so there was not much of an audience. The MC did his level best to try and milk some applause out of the tiny crowd of drinkers in the hotel’s bar, while the majority of the spectators were media staffers who clicked their cameras, rotated their focus rings and waved their extended microphone zepplins around. One gentleman in a green blazer stood with his hands in his pockets and stared disinterestedly at the drinkers in the pub. A row of hotel staffers sat along the edge of the swimming pool, dressed in green blazers and big smiles. It was hugely contrived, made for television, and an attempt at creating a dramatic media event that was something of a damp squib.

The interest was focussed on the names, rather than the drama of the event, and that is why most of us were watching. Who would be in, and who would be out? Would he or wouldn’t he?

The team has been announced and all the speculation is over. Now the post mortems begin.

Polling the international rugby media makes interesting reading. Whilst the rugby commentators in New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are all talking about the selected players and their individual strengths and weaknesses, there are numerous comments by the political dinosaur ex-patriots who have long since fled the shores of South Africa and are now turning on “their” team like a pack of rabid dogs.

The word “quota” is flung around like a Frisbee, caught and passed from hand to hand and on again. Comments such as “I will never support the Springboks again” and “quota rubbish” and “undeserving” abound. When challenged by others in the same forums these political dinosaurs cannot tell you who they would have picked instead of the named players, just that the named players were picked “because they are black” and thus automatically somehow undeserving of selection.

I merely need to remind these quota-fixated dinosaurs of the destiny of all dinosaureans – they are extinct. You ran away, now stay away.

The rugby commentators of the world are talking about who is in and who is out. None take any notice of the race, colour, creed, religious affiliation, blood group or grandmother’s maiden name of those that have been selected, they simply focus on the rugby.

I want to do the same.

During weeks past I have hammered on and on about not fully understanding the way Heyneke Meyer is going with his team selections, his tactics, and his overall strategies. I am still more than a little confused, but will attempt to understand the thinking processes involved in selecting the RWC squad.

Let me also say that if I do not agree with a selection, I will say so, and I will give my reasons. Once that is said and done, I will focus my thinking on fully supporting the chosen team and do my level best to find as many positives as I possibly can.

I must also remind myself – None of the players in the squad selected themselves. I will not stoop to the gutter as the Loftus crowd infamously did a couple of years go when they booed the young Percy Montgomery because they did not like the fact that he had been selected to play for South Africa in the midfield! He had not selected himself! It was a sad day in South African rugby and I pray we never see it again.

Let’s examine the squad and try and make sense of what we have been given:

Forwards:

Heyneke Meyer has selected 17 forwards, starting with 3 hookers, one of which can also, at a squeeze, play on the flank (Schalk Brits), although none of them can be switched into any of the propping berths as was done with John Smit in the 2011 squad. The lack of a propping hooker means that he was forced to take specialist props, but to seek versatility in his selections. Two of the five selected props can play on either side of the scrum, being Trevor Nyakane and Coenie Oosthuizen.

Four locks are included in the 17, with Pieter-Steph du Toit chosen as a “utility” lock who can play on the flank as well.

Five loose forwards complete the forward compliment, with no real surprises.

Let’s look at the individuals who have been selected and their potential, form, and reputation.

Hookers: Schalk Brits, Bismarck du Plessis, and Adriaan Strauss. The latter two were a shoe-in and will not elicit any comment from anyone. The wild card is Schalk Brits instead of Scarra Ntubeni. Perhaps the decision was based on Brits’s experience in the UK and a better lineout throw? Young Scarra is a great ball carrier and a very good scrummager, but his lineouts can be wonky.

I can find no arguments for any alternative player in this position.

Props: Jannie du Plessis, Frans Malherbe, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, and Coenie Oosthuizen.

Two out-and-out tightheads, one specialist loosehead, and two both-siders. A surprise that there are not six props, but HM’s thinking must have been based on having two both-siders providing the cover that a sixth prop would have given.

I am surprised by the selection of Coenie Oosthuizen. He has been on the injured list more than he has been on the practice field and has no form or fitness at all going into the RWC. A truly great ball carrier, his scrummaging has suffered in recent seasons due to ongoing neck and back problems. When he is on song, he is very very good, but he has been singing out of tune for the last two years. I would have preferred to see Steven Kitshoff in the squad as a second specialist loosehead with ball carrying ability and a huge Super 5 season behind him.

Vincent Koch stays at home after one poor day at the office against the Argies, but I guess he will learn from that and from his time in the squad – he will be back.

Locks: Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Victor Matfield (vc)

I was more than a little surprised when Jean de Villiers was announced as the first player out of the bag and as captain. I fully expected to see HM crown his old mate Vic Matfield as the new captain for the 2015 RWC while thanking Jean for sterling services in the past and wishing him well in his retirement. I remain unconvinced by his selection, but his inarguable experience and expertise as a 5 lock will be invaluable to the team.

The three youngsters chose themselves, with de Jager, du Toit and Etzebeth giving all South Africans more than enough satisfaction that we have 2nd row resources to match anyone in the world.

Unlucky ones? Perhaps Franco Mostert is the unluckiest of the candidates, but when HM sent him home to Johannesburg the writing was on the board. Flip van der Merwe would have been some people’s choice, but in my book he is a penalty liability and has become anonymous on the field of play.

Loose forwards: Willem Alberts, Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen.

There is going to be a lot of debate around this squad of 5 loosies.

I will pose some questions up front: Heinrich Brussouw was selected to play in all the mid-year tests and did enough to convince many that he was a natural selection for the RWC. Apparently he did not do enough top convince HM.

Marcell Coetzee has been the first choice open-sider for some time. Where is he, and why?

Warren Whiteley must be wondering what he did wrong, and to whom. When HM started to use Schalk Burger as an 8 Warren must have known……

Some of HM’s choices are inarguable. Schalk Burger, Francois Louw, and a fit Duane Vermeulen would walk into any team in the world.

Siya Kolisi is a better ball carrier and link than Brussouw, and plays a supporting role out wide that is always worthwhile. On those criteria he is easily selected. However, Brussouw is a better ball-fetcher and close-in tackler. Whether either are better than Oupa Mahoje is moot. I am a Kolisi fan and thus pleased with his selection.

I have had my say about Willem Alberts as a somewhat one dimensional player, and will leave it at that.

We do have a danger that three of the selected five loosies are not match fit and have no recent form whatsoever – Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen and Willem Alberts are the names of these three.

Backs

There are 14 backs in the Bok squad. Some surprises and some complete bolters. I also have no doubt that there will many arguments and some blood spilt over this squad.

We hear talk about versatility and utility players that can play in more than one position. Heyneke Meyers was ostensibly guided by the need for versatility. I am not so sure.

Names mentioned as “utility players” are Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux, Jesse Kriel, Ruan Pienaar, and JP Pietersen. The commonality between three of them is that they are all initially full backs, although Jesse Kriel is now considered South Africa’s first choice outside-centre. We are told that Kirchner and le Roux can both play wing. Willie le Roux can also play flyhalf if needed. JP Pietersen has been used as an outside centre, but is really just a wing. Pienaar was used as a 9, 10, 11, 14, and a 15 at various stages of his career, so perhaps he is a utility player.

The question must be asked whether any of the “utility” players would ever be an automatic first choice selection I his “alternate” position.

I would prefer to see a more versatile “utility” player such as Francoise Hougaard in the squad, but he is not.

Lets look at the squad:

Scrum-halves: Fourie du Preez, Rudy Paige, Ruan Pienaar

The omission of Cobus Reinach and the inclusion of Rudy Paige caught everyone by surprise. But is it really a surprise?

Back on the 1st of June I wrote an article titled “Bok Barometer” in which I discussed the potential candidates for the RWC squad that was still three months away.

I had this to say about Rudy Paige:

“Rudy Paige has shown patches of super skills, especially in broken play, and he keeps Handre Pollard supplied with plentiful good balls. He has weaknesses, some of them caused by the style of rugby his home franchise, the Bulls, have adopted as their own. He is too willing to pick and pop a pass to a pod of forwards, recycle, and do the same again and again, followed by a box-kick when there is a backline screaming for the ball. (Of course, this has been drilled into him by the over-clinical approach of the Loftus based coaching squad!) I like his enterprise on the run, and I like his quickness with the ball in hand. I have my doubts about his defence.”

Cobus Reinach received this assessment:

“2015 has been a difficult year for Reinach. Somehow he caught the arm-waving referee-questioning disease of his predecessor in the Sharks team, Charl McCleod. He spent a lot of time being disgruntled by the referees and their decisions, and started to get just a little too petulant for his own good. It was almost as if he had read about himself in the media and believed that he now had to live up to some hard man role model. He has obvious qualities as a scrumhalf when his focus is fully on his job. Perhaps his injury break will refocus his attention on the job at hand? If he comes back at the level of 2014 he will be a first choice for the 9 jersey.”

Since his comeback from injury Cobus Reinach did nothing to suggest that he is South Africa’s premier or 2nd choice scrum half, or even the 3rd choice. Choosing Rudy Paige over Reinach might have surprised some, but he will not let anyone down!

I remain utterly unconvinced of Fourie du Preez and his right to the number 9 jersey. Yes, he was one of the very best, whether he still is that good we cannot say. He has no form, no fitness, and no game-time to his credit. HM is taking a huge chance with him and hoping his wonky knee will hold up and that he can somehow find the magic of 2007 again. This is either a brilliant selection or a complete waste of a plane ticket. Only time will tell.

Ruan Pienaar is a given, he was going to be in the squad whatever anyone says.

I am truly sorry for young Faf de Klerk and for Francois Hougaard. I am not sure what they have done wrong.

Fly-halves: Pat Lambie, Handrè Pollard, Morné Steyn.

All I have to say here is “Where is Elton Jantjies and why Morne Steyn?”

I do not understand Steyn’s selection as this limits other backline options.

Centres: Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel

I have waxed lyrical about Jean de Villiers as a man, a captain, and a player. I am very sure he is in the squad as a leader and the country could not wish for a better captain. But is he fit and will he last a RWC campaign?

The two youngsters should be the starting midfield airing for South Africa for many years to come.

I am very surprised that Jan Serfontein did not make the cut.

I would most certainly have chosen Frans Steyn ahead of Morne Steyn as a utility back, being able to play at 10, 12, 13, and 15 and with a boot equal to a 150mm howitzer.

Outside backs: Bryan Habana, Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux, Lwazi Mvovo, JP Pietersen.

There will also be some raised eyebrows here. Zane Kirchner? I do not get it.

Willie le Roux has had a patchy season, moments of sheer brilliance and moments of abject misery. A poor Cheetahs squad and all kinds of internal difficulties that forced him to take on too much from the 15 position lead to mistakes, but then he is a known quantity. More brilliance than misery, and his sheer class and excitement brings far more to the game than a couple of defensive lapses in the Super 15. Should be the automatic first choice at 15, always.

So why Kirchner? We have Kriel as a back-up. We have Lambie and Pollard as emergency back-ups at a pinch. No Frans Steyn though.

I would suggest that it would have been a more balanced selection to take Frans Steyn, and Jan Serfontein, and to have left Kirchner and Morne Steyn at home.

Looking Forward

Enough said! We have the squad and it is time to look forwards not backwards. No more “salt pillaring” by looking back to see what has been left behind. No more “what ifs” or yes, buts” or anything else. The reality is that no amount of wringing of hands or yanking out tufts of your own hair will change the selections that have been made.

The Springbok Squad is done and dusted, time to look at what lies ahead:

South Africa will meet Japan in Group B on September 19, followed by Samoa (September 26), Scotland (October 3) and the USA (October 7).

While a Springbok team should never be nervous of meeting any of those opponents during a season, the RWC is a different time and different place. None of the teams have home advantage, and nobody knows the local conditions all that well. This may be a series of pool games, but lose just one, and you may find yourself looking at a very steep mountain that must be climbed to make the play-offs. Lose two and you will return home early enough to take your place in the Currie Cup competition’s later weeks.

I want the Boks to do well, and I will be on their side all the way. Although it is not necessarily the squad I would have chosen, they are still my team and they do represent the top end of our playing resources.

Go Bokke – Make Us Proud.