Allister Coetzee's limited selection of overseas-based players in his first Bok squad sent out a much-needed statement of intent, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
One of the most encouraging aspects of Coetzee's squad announcement on Saturday was the decisiveness and clarity with which he addressed some key issues. When Coetzee was first unveiled as Bok coach in April, his first public offerings generally ticked all the boxes.
Coetzee said all the right things in what perhaps, even unintentionally, translated to a charm offensive at the start of his tenure. Understandably, though, some of his public and media offerings may have been regarded as guarded.
Yet, on Saturday, Coetzee was forthright and up front. He picked just three overseas-based Boks: Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Steven Kitshoff. The former two were included for their leadership and experience. The latter was rewarded for his sublime form in France and in order to add much-needed depth at loosehead prop.
To the rest, Coetzee sent out a clear message: in the future, if you want to play for the Boks, you need to ply your trade in South Africa. As the man at the helm of the Boks, Coetzee has taken a stance. One way or another, it's a good move.
For too long there's been ambiguity around the selection of players abroad. It's been allowed, but deemed as the less preferable option. There's also been a vague pretext of locally-based players being favoured when it comes to 50-50 selections, but whether that was truly enforced remains a matter of opinion.
Coetzee picked just three overseas-based players for the upcoming series against Ireland. Don't be surprised if that number has declined to none by next June. Coetzee has shown that he is willing to back in-form players and to prefer those based in South Africa. For those playing abroad, there is no bigger incentive to return home.
SA Rugby cannot financially compete with the lure of the big-money offers from Europe and Japan, but finally there are signs of a stance taken that will cause players to think twice about heading abroad. Finally, we may see a downswing in the haemorrhaging of our local talent.
Coetzee has also hinted that his long-term skipper will be based in South Africa. It’s another significant statement considering Toulon’s Duane Vermeulen was widely regarded as the favourite to take up the leadership reins. If it’s a job the big No 8 wants, particularly considering he should still be able to make it to the next World Cup, he will need to put country before club. It’s the way it should be.
When Coetzee selects his first match 23 next week, he should also take the opportunity to reinforce his position. For the first time in recent memory, a first-choice Bok XV may not include Vermeulen and Louw despite their availability.
Based on impressions made in Super Rugby, there is no reason why Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel should not be entrusted with the No 8 and No 6 jerseys respectively, with Siya Kolisi at blindside flank.
Don’t for a second think top Boks based abroad won’t watch a Bok XV filled with players entirely based in South Africa and wonder whether they need to reconsider where they ply their trade in the future. Ditto for a youngster considering an overseas offer.
Just recently, we’ve seen three of the brightest talents in South Africa, Dan du Preez, Garth April and Jean-Luc du Preez, sign contract extensions to remain at the Sharks. In the statement confirming their commitment, director of rugby Gary Gold quite rightly pointed out that there is not a ‘club in Europe that would not want them in their squad'.
As it is, big-spending Toulon were believed to be interested in recruiting the Du Preezs, and yet perhaps with SA Rugby’s gradually changing position in mind, they opted to remain in South Africa. It’s a rare coup worth celebrating.
And speaking of April, it’s another selection that Coetzee should be commended for. Just last year, the 24-year-old pivot was playing club rugby in Cape Town. Not even 12 months later and he is set to become a Bok.
Yet Coetzee laughed off claims that April was a selection ‘bolter’. He insisted that there needs to be a change in thinking when it comes to the selection of players that have not necessarily followed the traditional path to Bok honours. He reiterated that ‘late bloomers’ should be rewarded rather than written off. Again, kudos to Coetzee for this view.
Of course, perspective is needed. The Boks have yet to even play a Test with Coetzee at the helm, but it’s clear he knows the direction he wants the team to head. It now remains to be seen if the players will follow and flourish under this philosophy.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images