Time For The Pick-A-Bok Show
To all intents and purposes, Super Rugby 2019 is done and dusted. Two South African teams soldiered on into the quarterfinal playoffs, while the other two had a chance to lick their wounds, rest and recuperate, and assess what was and what might have been.
From a wholly South African national perspective, the progression of both the Bulls and the Sharks to the playoff stages of the 2019 Super Rugby competition is not ideal.
There are much bigger fish to fry than the misbegotten Super Rugby competition.
The Rugby Championships looms, kicking off on Saturday 20thJuly in Johannesburg when the Springboks tackle the Wallabies.
Far more important, though, is a little tournament that kicks off on Friday the 20thof September, at the Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, when Japan face Russia is the first game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The following day, Saturday the 21stSeptember, sees the Springboks take on the All Blacks at the International Stadium Yokohama, in Yokohama City.
As the 2019 Super Rugby season slinks off to its inevitable conclusion, accompanied by a cacophony of yawns and sighs, a far more interesting subject rears its head again.
It is time to pick a Springbok Squad, the squad that we think Rassie Erasmus should be gathering together for the Rugby Championships, with more than half an eye focussed on that Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The debates have already started, various rugby publications have chosen their own selections, while a variety of rugby scribes, scribblers and bloggists have added their voices to the discussion.
Why should we be different?
Many of the suggested teams and squads published by all and sundry have been selected based on Super Rugby form, which might not be an adequate criteria for the selection of a Springbok squad – the whole is so often far more than the sum of the parts.
Players of obvious and known class are often held back by the team environment within which they are playing.
Others are elevated beyond their personal capabilities by the class and form of a player inside or outside of the individual.
Form is a guide, but it is not the only guide.
I will be approaching this exercise from a slightly different angle. I will list the contenders in a specific position, with both form and class as my initial guide. In a week or so from now I will post my first “squad” list of the year.
I had a chat to an old friend the other morning. A successful businessman with a track record second to none in the world of business. He suggested that certain business principles should be applied to the selection of any national sporting team. I agree with him!
Merit, Pragmatism, Honesty.
I will focus on these three principles: Merit, Pragmatism, and Honesty.
Merit is an easy one – the best player in his position, in the country. Period
Balanced by Pragmatism– the best player might not necessarily be the most suited to the team itself and the game plan the coach is looking to develop with in the squad. The best captain might well not be the best player in his favoured position. We need to find the players that are most likely to function well together, as a team. We need to be pragmatic in our choices.
Honesty is a critical issue.
There are a whole bunch of players who are playing rugby with their eyes firmly focussed on the World Cup – the once, perhaps twice in a lifetime opportunity for the best of the best to play in the most prestigious competition in the rugby world. A whole lot of those players are carrying injuries of one sort or another, injuries that prevent them from playing to their full potential. They know this, but they are playing on, despite those injuries, because they want to go to the World Cup. They know, and we know too, that they cannot produce their best, but they will hide that injury for the singular honour of going to the World Cup. That is not an honest approach.
So, let’s pick the contenders for a Springbok Squad.
Here are the rules:
Selection Criteria: Merit, Pragmatism, Honesty, Form, & Class.
Selection Motivation: Why a player is on your list.
Aphelele Fassi: More of an attacking player than a defender. Has had some very good moments in 2019. Carried the ball well, with a couple of very good line breaks, and some very good tackle breaks too. Some issues with handling, and conceded too many turnovers in the tackle. Missed a couple of crucial tackles, and was often out of position on defence, making a low 38 tackles all year. Seems to miss that crucial understanding of where the spaces are on a rugby field.
Damian Willemse: An attacking player, but also solid on defence. Perhaps he would prefer to be considered at flyhalf, but spent most of the season as a fullback. Made plenty of meters with the ball in hand, and his kicking from the fullback position was mostly very accurate. Positional play was usually very good, especially on defence where he made some very good tackles. Conceded turnovers too easily, and made too many handling errors, but that was a disease that infected his entire Stormers team. Understands space and surprise.
Warrick Gelant: A disappointing season after so much promise in previous years. Injuries did not help, but he has fallen into the trap of trying to dummy, goose-step, swerve, shimmy and sidestep opponents from a standing start rather than running at pace. Too many double pumps and goose-steps. Made relatively few tackles, less meters with the ball in hand than expected. Not at his best.
Willie le Roux: A known quantity – vision and understanding of space and timing is exceptional, brave on defence, and superb at creating space for support runners, together with the experience and leadership he brings to the back division, he remains the first choice for the Springboks. Seems to calm the youngsters when the pressure mounts.
Dillyn Leyds: A utility player who can play on either wing, or fullback, and even take on the flyhalf job if needed. Has that “ghosting” ability to get through the smallest gaps and create chances for support runners. Not the first choice at fullback, or on the wing, he should be in the squad for his ability to play anywhere.
Cheslin Kolbe: Yep, he started as a fullback and can play here too!See the comments below.
Curwin Bosch:See the comments for the Flyhalf position. Can play fullback, but his talents are wasted at the back.
Dillyn Leyds: As mentioned above, he has the ability to create chances and the skills to take those chances. Goes looking for work more than most. A good defender and his fullback experience shows as he covers across when his team attacks. Not an out-and-out speedster, he can do the job, and provides a clever alternative to some of the others.
Makazole Mapimpi: Brave, quick, and superb finishing ability. Right up with the best in linebreaks, and makes good meters with the ball in hand. Fairly solid on defence, has a bit of a problem under the high ball. Good chaser of tactical kicks. Sometimes a bit lazy and waits for the ball to come to him, but at other times goes ball hunting and leaves his wing channel exposed.
S’bu Nkosi:Powerfulrunner who is good at breaking tackles. Carries well, and good on the counter-attack. Gets turnover over in the tackle too easily, and misses too many tackles. A great player on the front foot, but gets lost if the team is going backwards. Another who tends to drift off his wing on defence.
Cheslin Kolbe: A surprise call-up in 2018, he has gone from strength to strength in Europe in 2019. A pocket-rocket with enormous bravery too. Rated as one of the most influential players of the entire season, and probably the first choice for the Springboks. Can play fullback too, and probably centre and scrumhalf if needed!
Cornel Hendricks: An outside chance of selection, he has become a bit slower than he used to be, and is guilty of watching from the wing rather than taking an active part in broken play.
Cheslin Kolbe: If you are not going to play him on the right, you had better play him on the left, or at fullback.
Makazole Mapimpi: Can play left or right. See above.
Aphiwe Dyantyi: A marked man in 2019, he was not given an inch by his opponents who had read the book and learned the lessons of 2018. Struggled to shake off the shackles of close scrutiny and had a quieter season. Seemed to have a crisis of confidence in the middle of the season, but came back as he gained experience. Started to find the spaces towards the end of the season. Should still be the first choice for Springboks. Still tends to drift inside on defence, which causes problems on the outside.
Courtnall Skosan:Another outsider for selection, brings plenty of experience and a good finisher of he finds the space. A determined player, but seems to lack that magic sparkle.
Lukhanyo Am:The form 13 in South African rugby at the moment. Has the ability to break a line wide open if given the ball and a bit of space by his inside centre – struggled in the one-dimensional approach of the Sharks and was often forced to play from a standing start or off broken play ball. Some good defence, some great attacking moments, but can find himself drifting out of position at the wrong moment.
Jesse Kriel: Struggled with injuries after starting 2019 with some superb straight running and line-breaking. Seemed to have put aside the penchant for swerving sideways while hanging on to the ball too long and started to create space for the wings outside him. Tackling has improved too. Late season return from injury has not shown anything.
Frans Steyn:A know quantity, with the ability to dictate play, a siege gun boot, and all the experience in the world. He brings vast experience, tactical nous, and versatility to the game. Can play flyhalf, inside centre, wing, and fullback, and will help fill a huge hole in the backline where Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel seem to be the only candidates for the 13 jersey.
Damian de Allende:Started to show the sure-footed dynamic play of previous years as he found fitness and form towards the end of the season. His offloading was impressive, and the stats tell us that he leads in every single category of play for all the South African inside centre candidates. His defence has been rock solid, and his ability to turn the ball over in the tackle is priceless. Already head and shoulders above the rest of the inside centre candidates, we also know that he is not yet playing at his best.
Burger Odendaal: Can be too one-dimensional as he tries to emulate Jan Serfontein’s previous crashball style for the Bulls. The timing of his passes seems a little limited. Misses too many tackles. Not really a candidate.
Harold Vorster: After being written off as a muscle-monkey crashball runner he found a new dimension to his game in some of the later season Lions games. Has upped his distribution skills considerably. Still hangs onto the ball a shade too long, and his defence sometimes creaks, but often as a result of the gaping hole left inside him by Elton Jantjies.
Andre Esterhuizen: Can be very effective as a physical presence in the midfield, but does not bring anything else. No sparkle, no innovation. Not a great distributor of the ball, he tends to go to ground rather than pass. Powerful defender!
Jan Serfontein. As a schoolboy he had all the attributes to be one of the greats, but had the enterprise coached out of him at the Bulls where he became a crash-ball expert. Started to find his game again during the woeful Allister Coetzee era, but his departure to France left the Springbok team in the lurch, and he has not been as influential in Europe as he should be.
Handré Pollard: The out-and-out favourite to be South Africa’s starting flyhalf for a long time to come. Cool, calm game management, a metronomic goal kicking boot, and a clever tactical boot, he is always prepared to take the ball flat and attack the line, and has the physicality to burst through tackles. Makes his share of robust tackles too.
Curwin Bosch: The crown prince at flyhalf. Silky skills, a superb boot, and the willingness to attack at every opportunity. Lacks experience and is still learning the tactical game, he has the ability to see and use space. His defence needs work, but has improved in 2019. Should be Pollard’s back-up if logic has anything to do with selection.
Elton Jantjies: The wayward one. On attack, he can be sublime, one of the very best in the word. On defence he is abysmal, the worst defender in all of Super Rugby for two years on the trot! The real problem is what happens in between his ears. When confidence evaporates he turns to jelly. Just does not have that special BMT needed at the highest levels. Has had some disciplinary issues too. I list him as he still has his supporters. Personally, I would not include him in my squad.
Faf de Klerk: The incumbent, coming off another good season for Sale Sharks, he is the man in possession and likely to feature as the first choice in 2019.
Embrose Papier: The rotation policy exercised by the Bulls has robbed Papier of the opportunity to get as much field time and experience under his belt as possible. This has been to his detriment in 2019 as he was not able to play his way back into the form he had in 2018. Plenty of potential, not enough game time.
Herschel Jantjies: Certainly stepped up a couple of notches in 2019. In a Stormers outfit where the backs misfired more often than not, he was one bright light in a sometimes dim universe. A quick, efficient service off the base of the ruck and set-pieces, and an eye for the opportunity too. Still a youngster, he is probably the first choice as back-up to De Klerk at the moment.
Cobus Reinach: A solid club season behind himfor Northampton Saints, his form is somewhat unknown back in South Africa. A penchant for getting a bit too involved off the ball has been tempered in recent years.
Ivan van Zyl: A carthorse at the base of the ruck, he takes an awfully long time to set up his box-kicks, giving opponents time to align themselves for the kick receipt and to set up to run legal but obstructive lines. Shows little enterprise of vision.
Andre Warner: A clone of Ivan van Zyl.
Ross Cronje: Steady, but a journeyman scrumhalf. Will not let you down, but will not set the house on fire either. Very poor on defence with a ratio of just 52% tackles made – he missed almost half his tackles!
Duane Vermeulen: Thormeulen, brings so much to any side that he represents – the hardcore mongrel that any team needs, the tactical understanding and leadership, the steel and muscle. Quite but firm leadership and an unflappable demeanour. Brings enormous grunt to the carry. He also brings superlative skills in the loose, and under the high ball. Not too many in South Africa that can challenge his supremacy as the number one No.8.
Warren Whiteley: Sadly, Whiteley is an injury waiting to happen. His well-documented physical frailty suggests that he will break down again, and again. He brings calm, measured leadership to any team, although he is perhaps not the best No.8. in the country. His fitness cannot be guaranteed. Perhaps his career is over?
Dan du Preez: Somewhat one dimensional smash-bash-crash ball carrier of note. Yes, he brings superb ball carrying ability to the game, and he will also bring his fierce commitment on defence, but remains a less-than-clever player more suited to the slower, wet game of the northern hemisphere.
Jaco Coetzee: A late entry into the discussion, at 23 with just 10 Super Rugby caps, he is perhaps still a bit young and inexperienced for the hurly-burly of Test rugby, but he certainly has the potential to grow into a very good 8.
Siya Kolisi: The man in possession, and the captain. Was playing some of the best rugby of his career when he was injured late in the Super Rugby season. Despite missing the final rounds, he was chosen as the openside flank of the Super Rugby year by no less than four of the media sites that indulge in such selections, including one New Zealand based site! He picks himself.
Jaco Coetzee: A late season statement by the burly Stormer, suggesting that he is an admirable back-up to both Kolisi at flanker, as well as a utility loosie in the blindside and No.8 roles. Perhaps a bit short on experience.
Kwagga Smith: Made massive strides towards the end of the season, often being the only Lions’ loose forward visible as his team struggled. An injury robbed the Lions of his services, and probably of a playoff place – he was that valuable to them. Another utility loosie who can play 8 or blindside if needed.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: Probably the best blindside flank in the world in 2019, and very difficult to replace in the line-up, such is his on-field impact. His work rate is unbelievable, and his tackle count is out of this world. Carries the ball with purpose too. Brings an additional lineout option when playing as a flank. The beauty of it is that he can be selected as a first choice lock forward too!
Kwagga Smith: See my comments above.
Marco van Staden: Ever present over the ball, and a very good ball-carrier, but he tends to get isolated, and transgresses at the ruck a bit too often for comfort. Very good in the tackle. At 23, with just 16 Super Rugby caps, he is still inexperienced and earning his trade. Will become a very good flanker if he continues his upward trajectory. Has the ability to play open side too.
Rynardt Elstadt:An interesting recent addition to the conversation. A great season for Toulouse has elevated him as a Bok candidate. Elstadt is a utility player of the hard-man variety, able to hold his own at lock as well as at blindside flanker in any company. He has mongrel aplenty, but does have a penchant for giving away unnecessary penalties.
Marcell Coetzee: Good form for Ulster throughout the 2018-19 season has earned him a call-up to the Springbok squad. Questions remain about his injury issues and his frail knees.
Cobus Wiese: A youngster at 22, he is rapidly becoming a serious contender for national selection.Came back from an early season injury with some very good rugby. Another big flanker/8 who can play lock if required, an extra option in the lineouts, and a sterling defender. Carries the ball with solid determination.
South Africa is blessed with some of the world’s best lock forwards.
First: The Big Five:
Eben Etzebeth: As good as any in the world, one of the heavy hitters in the direct game, with serious power in the carry and assist, great defence, very good pace around the field, and a master of the front of the lineout. An outstanding scramble defender. Brings the mongrel and attitude that every team needs from the nominated enforcer, yet has learned to control the aggression to a point where he is a serious distraction for opponents, yet is not needlessly penalised for doing so. Not the midfield creator of a Retallick, but the power around which the team revolves. The Springboks without Etzebeth are a weaker side for it.
RG Snyman: Has become a very good all-field player, carrying the ball with serious intent and demonstrating ball skills often not associated with a lock forward. Much improved on defence too. Discipline has improved beyond measure. Has learned to control the somewhat silly aggression of seasons past and is a much better player for it. Has a penchant for no-look offloads that can cause problems if support players are not on his shoulder. Probably a starting lock alongside Etzebeth.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: Not much more can be said about the man that was not said under the Blindside Flanker category. One of the very best.
Lood de Jager: Injury prone, but when fit and on form, one of the better locks in the world. A superb lineout technician, he also carries the ball cleverly. Sometimes tends to play a little too loose for his bulk.
Franco Mostert: The smallest of South Africa’s Big Five, he remains a master of the lineouts, and a mongrel in the loose. One of the invisible workers that gets more than his fair share of the work done, game after game.
Jason Jenkins: Not quite living up to the standards he set as a junior, he has the potential, but lacks the experience and seems a bit short on the skills. Gets a bit lost in the hard stuff.
Ruan Botha: A very good lineout option, a fair scrummager, and a good ball carrier. Tends to disciplinary indiscretions and seems to fade when the game gets really fast.
Marvin Orie: A very good lineout option, but seems just a little lightweight in the scrums and hard direct rugby moments. If the game opens up, he comes into his own.
Cobus Wiese: One of those back-up players that can fill in at lock, but is perhaps better in the loose forward role.
Rynardt Elstadt: As mentioned above, utility player of the hard-man variety, able to hold his own at lock as well as at blindside flanker in any company.
Frans Malherbe: The quiet man of the scrum – but only in the sense of keeping his mouth shut as he scrums opponents into the dirt. Often an unsung hero as he does not draw attention to himself, and plays his game without flamboyance or frippery. Those that scrum against him rate him as one of the strongest in the world. A super support player in the lineouts and at the cleanouts, with a reputation for man-stopping tackles.
Vincent Koch: A never-say-die scrummager with powerful scrummaging and good technique. A powerful streak of competitiveness. A good all-field player too. Good defender, good carrier.
Wilco Louw: Has had a somewhat quiet 2019, seeming to struggle to gain the kind of form and power that he produced in 2018. Just seems a bit out of sorts.
Trevor Nyakane: Powerful scrummager, when he gets it right. Can get a bit flustered when he is put under pressure in the scrum and seems to lose his technique, but when he gets the upper hand and the mental dominance that goes with it, he is a handful for anyone. Fair ball carrier, and average defender. Can play loose- or tighthead.
Carlu Sadie: Came into his own later in the season, but might be a little light in experience for the step up to Test level. A solid scrummager, powerful ball carrier, and a good defender, he sometimes gets a bit lost in the traffic.
Thomas du Toit: Has the reputation, but has not always lived up to expectations. Having started life as a loosehead, he made the switch to tighthead, and struggled to come to terms with the different technique. A powerful scrummager when he gets going, and a good ball carrier, his defence is sometimes a bit wishy-washy. Can get a bit distracted by off-the-ball stuff.
Malcolm Marx: Need we discuss this man? When he is on song, there is nobody in the world to touch him. Ranks as one of the best around. Period.
Bongo Mbonambi: Improved beyond measure in the last two years. Found his scrummaging technique, a steady thrower at lineouts, and a remarkably good ball carrier. Brings a special level of energy to the field when he plays. A world-class hooker, would be the first choice in many Test teams, and is a great understudy to Marx.
Schalk Brits: The old man brings years and years of experience, and an irrepressible enthusiasm, but might just be getting a bit long in the tooth. Knows his way around the field and reads the game superbly.
Steven Kitshoff: One of the world’s premier looseheads, a monster in the scrum with superb technique, a very good ball carrier, and an excellent tackler to boot. His work on the fringes and at cleanouts is often the difference between a turnover or not. Some of his tackles border on murderous.
Tendai Mtawarira: Injuries are starting to mount up for the old warrior. After a season or two in the doldrums, he came back with some powerful rugby in 2018 and 2019, but his fitness might be an issue. His experience is invaluable, and his scrummaging technique is masterful.
Lizo Gqoboka: The young pretender to the Beast’s throne, he has improved beyond measure in 2019 and must rank as one of the three best in South Africa at the moment. Very good when carrying the ball.
Coenie Oosthuizen: A powerhouse when things click, he seems to have lost his all-field play and become nothing more than a battle-tank carrier in the midfield. Goes to ground too easily with the ball in hand. Has missed too many tackles for comfort in 2019.
Dylan Smith: Rapidly improving, but perhaps a little lightweight for the really big stuff? Good hands, and good support running, very good around the fringes.
Thomas du Toit: Seems to be battling to come to terms with his role at the Sharks, perhaps a better loosehead than he is given credit for, and used as a tighthead rather too often. The fact that he can pack down on either side of the scrum counts in his favour.
There you have it, my list of candidates at the moment. I am sure I have left someone’s cousin off the list, or have insulted someone else’s favourites by ignoring them. So be it.
Motivate your choices, and I might change my list………