Bismarck is still the best

Adriaan Strauss can captain the Springboks in the short term, but Bismarck du Plessis remains South Africa's best hooker, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

Too much is made in SA of who captains the Springboks and in the past two cycles, it has not had a good ending.

The captain should always be the best player in his position; alternatively there should be no dispute about whether the captain is good enough to be the starting option.

SA’s captains at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups were two modern-day world greats in John Smit and Jean de Villiers, but both had passed their peaks when leading SA in 2011 and 2015, and both were picked on reputation more than form.

It made for a mess – and the captaincy of the Springboks is something that does not need to be a mess.

Strauss is a good choice of captain for the immediate task of beating Ireland in a three-Test series. Strauss was captain of the Cheetahs and is captain of the Bulls in this season’s Super Rugby campaign.

Warren Whiteley, leader of the Lions, would also have been a good choice given his success and impact at the Lions.

There are other good leaders within the squad, most notably Toulon-based Duane Vermeulen, who led the Stormers before his departure to France.

Most top-five national teams have a top-five leadership corps within their respective squads. No one player dictates leadership alone. It is a collective more than a singular and that is why I think too much is always made of who captains the Springboks and once that decision is made, too many guarantees are afforded that player.

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has said he would reassess Strauss’s appointment at the conclusion of the Irish series, but that early indications were it would be extended.

Coetzee may have a very different view two weeks into the Test series because all he has known in the past 10 days is that honeymoon feeling of euphoria every Bok coach experiences before his first Test. Coetzee, like his predecessors, has not had one Test in which to get it wrong. This changes on Saturday and the critique of the Bok coach will intensify.

His long-term thinking will also be challenged while he negotiates the short-term challenge of Ireland.

Strauss is SA’s best hooker in Super Rugby and the best local-based hooker. But he is still second to the brilliance of Springbok veteran Bismarck du Plessis, who has been magnificent and inspirational for Jake White’s Montpellier.

Those who dismiss Du Plessis as yesterday’s man or as not needed may well have to eat humble pie come the Rugby Championship or end-of-year tours.

Du Plessis is too good a player to simply dismiss as part of Springbok history. Ditto centre Frans Steyn. It would be small-minded to refuse to accept the quality of the Montpellier duo, both of whom are World Cup winners.

Which brings me back to Strauss and the captaincy. Not only could he face the challenge of Du Plessis, but there are also some very fine local-based young hookers who, in 18 months, could be asking questions of the coach’s selections.

We have seen it so often in our rugby and it would appear that the only thing every Bok coach learns from his predecessors is that he does not learn.

Smit was a brilliant captain and the best starting option for the Springboks in the 2007 World Cup-winning year, but in 2011, he was no longer the best hooker in the country and he also was not the best front-row option.

But coach Peter de Villiers felt compelled to back Smit as his captain and first-choice hooker and started the World Cup quarter-final defeat against Australia with Smit at No 2. Du Plessis, who at that stage was rated the best in the world, warmed the bench.

The same thing happened in 2015 with the selection of De Villiers, who despite a six-month absence because of injury, was picked to start ahead of younger, more potent and more in-form players.

De Villiers, for the bulk of his Test career, ranked among the game’s top two or three in his position, but in 2015, he was a shadow of the man who was good enough to play 100-plus Tests for the Boks.

Heyneke Meyer remained loyal to De Villiers as his captain when his loyalty should have been to picking the best available match squad.

I hope Coetzee creates a new kind of history where the emphasis is on picking the team and then the captain, and not a team that for the next four years must always accommodate a predated captaincy decision.

Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images