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Springboks 2017 by Bill van Zyl

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Bill van Zyl

9 hrs

Springboks 2017

, I must share some thoughts regarding Allister Coetzee’s 2017 Springbok Squad.

I have to start my discussion by stating out aloud, I am confused.

This is not the first time I have started a discussion on Springbok selections with those words. Pieter de Villiers caused everyone to be confused, both by his selections and even more so by his public utterances. Heyneke Meyer started out so well, and then rapidly changed direction and strategies from week to week, which eventually gave me much cause for confusion, especially in 2015 as he meandered from an exciting open rugby style to an archaic forward based style that reminded me of the Bulls of the 1970s. And then there were his selections….. all those old men called back from the retirement villages of the rugby world.

And now we have Allister Coetzee, and confusion reigns supreme.

2016 was truly South African Rugby’s Annus Horribilis – this was a year that many a Springbok supporter simply choses to pretend never happened. When talk turns to rugby matters in the pubs and clubs of the world, Springbok supporters are strangely quiet, almost obsequious in their attempts to change the subject to something more palatable. If ever a national rugby union’s gravy train found itself derailed, it was the spectacular implosion that was South African rugby in 2016.

The Springbok rugby team resembled rugby’s version of a truly dishabille tramp wandering around looking for somewhere quiet to have a snooze. Their supporters, mostly amongst of the world’s most jeeringly triumphalist winners, lost their arrogance and self-satisfied preening and became amongst the angriest losers in the history of sport.

There were many reasons for the spectacular face-plant that was South African rugby.

A new coach, appointed at the 11th hour with a coaching and management squad that was not of his own choosing, seemed to have been set up to lose from the day of his appointment. He was given no time to watch and learn about the talent that was available to him, and even less time to prepare his squad before the Irish came a-visiting.

His appointment had been delayed, postponed, and then delayed again as the rugby administrators of South Africa fought amongst themselves for power, influence, and a better seat at the dinner table. Fourteen rugby unions each pushed their own agenda with scant regard for the good of the whole. The President of SARU resigned and rode off into his personal version of the sunset; the SARU CEO was embroiled in court cases as he stood accused of siphoning money from the coffers of a university where he worked before joining SARU. Nepotism and personal agendas ruled every decision that was taken at the highest levels of South African rugby.

Add in the undoubted pressures on the new coach to select a team that would satisfy national politicians and their non-sporting aspirations, and you begin to understand why the Springbok Coaching job is considered the poison chalice of world rugby.

The corps of players from which the new coach had to choose his national squad was one of the most inexperienced batches of youngsters ever to attend a senior training camp. Senior players had abandoned ship in their droves the moment the 2015 World Cup entered history, heading off to earn foreign currency somewhere other than in Africa.

A goodly chunk of Henyeke Meyer’s Dad’s Army finally hung up their rugby boots to grab a lucrative contract as somewhat tongue-tied and inarticulate television broadcast commentators and “specialist” analysists. Their expertise was lost to the game as they wore stylish corporate suits and smiled at the cameras while making inane comments.

There was nobody left to nurture and guide the youngsters that would step into the empty spaces left by the disappearing seniors..

The six Super Rugby squads from which his players would come were playing six different styles of rugby, and five of them were not playing their unique styles of rugby terribly well. At the top end of the scale the Lions were playing a modern, fast, running style of rugby, and as we drop down the scale we found the Stormers attempting to emulate the Lions, but without the necessary skill sets required if you are going to run with the ball. The Cheetahs flung every ball wide out to the wing and hoped for the best, tackling was not part of their preparations. The Sharks and the Bulls persisted with a slow, forward oriented kicking game that required no great imagination and zero risk. The less said about the contribution the Kings made to South African rugby in 2016 the better.

Into this turmoil stepped Allister Coetzee. At the time I said that he was a very very brave man. Very few of the world’s coaches wanted the job. (Save for Jake White, but he wants every job that is advertised in the world of rugby.)

Sadly for Allister he was quickly exposed to the overbearing, unrelenting pressure of the local media and fans who demand instant success and nothing less. When his team of wet-behind-the-ears youngsters did not provide the instant success demanded by the unforgiving public, the pressure on the coach ramped up to the point where a lesser man would have packed up and left the room. (Remember Harry Viljoen?)

Allister Coetzee did not run away. He stuck it out, but he became more and more like a startled rabbit in the headlights of an onrushing 18-wheeler truck. He quickly abandoned the open style of running rugby he had chosen for his first challenge against the visiting Irish. In his desperation to find a win, any win, his team switched to a style of unimaginative forward oriented rugby where every single ball was handed to a forward to trundle into contact and recycle, over and over again, with no plan, no imagination, and no idea where a win would come from.

He was not helped by the invisibility of the man he had chosen to captain the Springboks. Adriaan Strauss simply vanished in the cauldron of test rugby, his obvious captaincy strengths at provincial level vanished like mist before the sun.

Amidst his confusion of rugby styles he started to make selection errors and mistakes. The sign of a truly desperate man. Players were constantly deployed in out of position. South Africa’s best fullback was given the boot and flyhalves found themselves wearing the number 15 on their backs in test matches. Outside centres were chosen at inside centre, centres played wing, and vice versa, locks played flank, old men were called back from distant memory. Confusion reigned.

And the results remained amongst the poorest imaginable. South Africa lost to Italy, and the fan based exploded in unprecedented fury. Nothing less than a public beheading and permanent damnation to Purgatory was good enough for the coach. The players were damned as spoilt brats with no pride nor ambition other than banking their next salary cheque. They were told they were unfit by many old men with beer bellies and distant memories of their own playing days. Administrators were condemned as a class and a clique. Anybody that said anything positive about a South African rugby player, coach, or team was a candidate for psychiatric evaluation and would be fetched by some burly men in white coats bearing a comfy white jacket with strange sleeves and little belts and buckles.

Of course, the rugby authorities reacted to the anger and disappointment. They had to! Post mortems were held, privately and publically. Indabas were organised, endless discussions took place, plans were made and remade, and there was lots of talk of lessons learned and new plans and styles and national drives and refocusing and… and… and…..

And now the 2017 international season has rolled around. The French are about to arrive in South Africa and rugby supporters have a serious case of the jitters.

Allister Coetzee somehow survived the clarion calls for his dismissal, probably because nobody else in world rugby wants his job. He has a new-look coaching squad in his corner.

And he has just announced his first Springbok squad for the year. The squad that will play against the visiting French.

I do admit to being somewhat confused by some of his selections, and by some of his non-selections!

There are eight uncapped players in his squad. Two forwards and six amongst the backs. The new forwards are both prop forwards, Ruan Dreyer and Lizo Gqoboka. Amongst the backs we see Lukhanyo Am, Andries Coetzee, Ross Cronje, Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule, and Courtnall Skosan. Rhule, Cronje, Dreyer and Gqoboka have previously toured with the Boks, but are yet to play in a Test match for South Africa.

Coetzee has also recalled six very experienced players to his squad. They include Frans Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Duane Vermeulen, two from playing rugby in France and one in England. Three locals have also been recalled, being Jan Serfontein, Coenie Oosthuizen and Chiliboy Ralepelle. The six returnees have more than 200 Test caps of experience between them.

Frans Steyn plays for French side Montpellier and was a member of the 2007 Rugby World Cup winning squad. He last featured in a Springbok Test in 2012 when contractual disagreements resulted in his voluntary withdrawal from the Bok squad. Chiliboy Ralepelle is back in the Bok squad after four years – his last Test was in 2013. He had to serve out a lengthy ban for using illegal performance enhancing chemicals while playing rugby in France.

Jan Serfontein was injured and missed the entire 2016 season, while Coenie Oosthuizen, who played 23 Tests between 2012 and 2015, is also back in the squad.

Duane Vermeulen featured in only two Tests in 2016 before suffering an injury during the home series against Ireland, while Francois Hougaard returns after missing the “Darkest Hour” tour to the United Kingdom and Italy at the end of 2016 due to injury.

Warren Whiteley has been named the 58th Springbok captain.

The 31-man Springbok squad will assemble on Monday, 29 May for a week-long camp in Plettenberg Bay before moving camp to Pretoria where they will fine-tune final preparations for the first Test.

Let’s take a look at some of those who have missed out on selection.

Some of Allister’s 2016 troops who are missing from the squad include Trevor Nyakane, Juan de Jongh, Lionel Mapoe, Ruan Combrinck, Uzair Cassiem, Jean-Luc du Preez, Faf de Klerk, Willem Alberts, Francois Venter and Jamba Ulengo.

Some of these omissions are understandable, but some are a little confusing.

I watched Ruan Combrinck’s return to Super Rugby with interest, and his performance against the Bulls last weekend told me he was back with a bang. I cannot understand why he has been sent off to play for the second team rather than being an automatic choice for the Springbok squad.

I am also not too sure that I know why Lionel Mapoe and Francois Venter are down in the “A” squad?

I can understand that Trevor Nykanye has been less than impressive at the Bulls in 2017, and that Uzair Cassiem and Juan de Jongh have just returned from injury.

Willem Alberts should not have been called up in 2017, and Jean-Luc de Preez does not tick too many boxes for me, he is a big, muscular forward with very little flair or excitement in his game, and Jamba Ulengo has yet to live up to his star billing. But if he is in the second team, why is Raymond Rhule in the 1st team? His defensive woes are legendary and I am not sure his finishing is better than Ulengo’s.

I am not sure, exactly, what Faf de Klerk has done wrong, and his omission has resulted in his being lost to local rugby as the lure of an overseas contract has won his interest!

Let’s look at some other issues that cause confusion.

If the likes of Steyn, Vermeulen, Kitshoff, and Hougaard have been called back from overseas, why has Bismarck du Plessis been left in France?

Malcolm Marx is surely the future of South Africa’s hooking berth, but he needs a mentor and guide. He has worked hard to fix his lineout throws and his all-round game improves with every week. He needs someone to show him the ropes and help him hone the skills that compliment his undoubted physical attributes. He needs Bismarck du Plessis.

Dare I say it? South Africa also needs Bismarck, for his sheer mongrel, his imposing presence on the field, his leadership and experience, and most critically his ball winning ability in a team that is woefully short of true fetchers on the loose!

Bongi Mbonambi and Chiliboy Ralepelle are very good hookers at provincial level rugby, but neither are great scrummagers, neither are totally dependable at lineout time, and neither are real ball fetchers or carriers.

Which brings me to the next oddity of selection.

I must ask whether Warren Whitely is the best eighth man in South African rugby? No doubt he is an inspiration captain in his Lions outfit, and will probably be a good captain for the Boks, but I do have an issue with his choice as our starting No 8.

The captain, any captain, must be the very best player in his position that is available for his country or team. He cannot be selected simply because he is a good captain, and I fear that Warren Whiteley is not the best No 8 available for South Africa.

He is a very good link between backs and forwards, and his defensive attributes are world class, but I do not see him leading the physical charge up front, nor do I see him as an imposing presence in the hard stuff of test rugby.

There can be no doubt that the man for the physical job of a test match eighth man play is Duane Vermeulen. In almost every aspect of eighth-man play he is better player than Whiteley, except perhaps as a tackler out wide and a support player out on the wing. He has built a reputation as one of the hardest men in world rugby, and is a very good captain too.

It seems that we will see him start tests for South Africa as a blindside flank, which just appears a little silly. We need him in the role where he earned the nickname Thormeulen! We need him as a ball-carrier that attacks the gain-line. We need him as a master fetcher on the ground, and we desperately need him as the master-mind in South Africa’s defensive lines.

These are all aspects of his play where he towers over Whiteley, yet where he could well be hamstrung if deployed as a flanker.

(I am not guessing about his deployment as a flank! Coetzee said that he would be doing exactly that. With Whiteley installed as the Bok captain and first-choice No 8, Vermeulen will move to blindside flank.)

We now must look at the rest of the loose-forward options in the squad!

And I am even more confused. Coetzee has said that Vermeulen would start as the blindsider. Why then does he have two more blindside flankers in his squad of 31. Siya Kolisi and Oupa Mohoje are both blindsiders with just Jaco Kriel a true opensider. (Kolisi has played as an opensider but has specialized as a blindside flank in 2017.) Once again the Boks are light on fetchers!

Where is Ruan Ackermann? If you want a muscular ball carrier who also has pace, he is your man, and he also brings considerable ball winning ability to the game. Why is his name missing from both the Bok and the “A” squads?

I am confused. I am also confused why the best fetcher in South Africa rugby in 2017, Chris Cloete has not been included in the squad.

Another aspect of the squad selection I find worrying is the lack of bulk, power, as well as experience, in the back-three options. I again ask why Ruan Combrinck has been left out of the squad. He brings that bulk, the power, and the necessary physicality that I do not see amongst Lukhanyo Am, Andries Coetzee, Jesse Kriel, Dillyn Leyds, and Courtnall Skosan. These are all will o’ wisp players. Runners one and all, but not men known for running the hard yards close to the goal line. I am not questioning their guts and commitment, but they are all a little light? Perhaps Allister is looking at Frans Steyn at fullback again?

And where is Willie le Roux? The best attacking fullback with a South African passport anywhere in the world!

Now we turn to the flyhalf options.

Oh, wait! There are no options, there is just one flyhalf in the entire squad.

Elton Jantjies has no back-up! (Unless it is Frans Steyn, again?

We know that Pat Lambie and Handré Pollard’s injury woes have left the Boks a little light at flyhalf. But there are a couple of names that should perhaps have been in the squad, even if they were only there as back-up to the notoriously fickle Jantjies! Where are journeymen like Lionel Cronje and Fred Zeilinga? Neither have the flair nor excitement of Elton Jantjies in full flow, but neither will fold like Jantjies has shown he can and will do under pressure. Where is Garth April? Why has Curwin Bosch not been called back from junior duty as back-up for the big boys?

If I look at the forward selections again, my confusion is again rampant.

I see an awful lot of props! Ruan Dreyer, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Tendai Mtawarira, Lizo Gqoboka, and Coenie Oosthuizen. Six props!

I see three hookers: Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, and Chiliboy Ralapele. Why three? Why so many?

I see four lock forwards, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, and Franco Mostert. This is predictable and unarguable.

But I only see five loose forwards! Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel, Oupa Mohoje, Duane Vermeulen, and Warren Whiteley.

I fear that we are overburdened with props and underweight in the loose forward department. And I reiterate: We only have one openside flanker!

Amongst the backs I might question the selection of Lukhanyo Am and Raymond Rhule as I am not sure they are international quality players. I also question the inclusion of Rudy Paige in the squad. His decision making is non-existent, and his passing is as slow as ladies doubles on clay in the 1950s. Surely Faf de Klerk is a better bet?

I am pleased to see the bulk and power of de Allende (or Dallender as Nick Mallet insists on calling him) back in the midfield, his 2015 partnership with Jesse Kriel needs to be reestablished, nurtured and polished, they promise to be the best midfield combination South Africa has had in years!

The rest all deserve to be in the squad, although I fear that there is a distinct lack of experience, again………..

So, Allister, while there are some admirable selections in your squad, I am, again, confused by the thinking of so many of your selections!

I hope I am proved wrong!

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