The Springboks' World Cup squad hasn't rewarded form and isn't a victory for transformation, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
Heyneke Meyer’s preferred Word Cup run-on XV will include 10 players who started the 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat against Australia in New Zealand. Six of the starting pack, if fit, will start the big games at this World Cup and four of the backs will again be entrusted with winning a World Cup play-off.
The front row, lock Victor Matfield and loose forwards Schalk Burger, Willem Alberts and Francois Louw were all in New Zealand. So too scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, utility back Pat Lambie (who started the 2011 quarter-final at fullback), centre Jean de Villiers and wingers Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.
On the surface that’s a lot of experience to take to a World Cup, unless of course these elite players have been injured or woefully out of form for a sustained period.
Meyer confirmed a squad of 31 he described as the one he wanted. It did not include Frans Steyn, Jan Serfontein, Marcell Coetzee, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Hougaard, Cobus Reinach and Cornal Hendricks, who have all played for the Boks in the past 18 months. It also did not include hooker Scarra Ntubeni and flyhalf Elton Jantjies, who have been among the extended Bok squad in the same period.
Coetzee and Reinach were the shock omissions, especially Coetzee, who had been the form loose forward in South Africa throughout 2015. Serfontein and Reinach were try-scoring heroes in South Africa’s win at Twickenham less than a year ago. Neither could make the 31.
Jantjies was South Africa’s form flyhalf in Super Rugby, yet was never given a minute of Bok game time this season. Ntubeni has seen many of Meyer’s Bok camps and tours but is yet to wear a Bok jersey.
Much has been made of Meyer having to meet a nine black player goal and that is why uncapped Rudy Paige was picked ahead of Reinach and Hougaard. Loose forward Siya Kolisi’s selection – ahead of Brüssow and Coetzee – is also clouded with uncertainty for all the wrong reasons. It should have nothing to do with colour but the specifics of what each player offers as a loose forward.
Paige’s selection can’t be explained. If the Bulls scrumhalf was integral to World Cup planning he’d have played at least one minute over four years.
Kolisi is a quality player and has always produced in a Bok jersey. But Kolisi is primarily a blindside flanker. Kolisi, Schalk Burger and Willem Alberts are a loose-forward grouping, with Coetzee and Brüssow more aligned to an openside role.
Blindside flankers dominate the selections and there is an imbalance in support of specialist opensider Louw.
Meyer could have accommodated one of Coetzee or Brüssow if he had opted for Alberts as a blindside flanker who doubles as tighthead lock. Instead he added lock Pieter-Steph du Toit to the squad as a lock who can double as a blindside flanker.
It’s the balance of loose forwards and locks I would question, more than the colour composition. It’s also the fitness – in terms of game time – that asks more questions than it gives answers. Du Toit has played a couple of games this year, Alberts has played 40 minutes in the past four months and No 8 Duane Vermeulen has not played since a neck operation three months ago.
Meyer has picked seven frontline players who have suffered serious injuries this season and have not played for a lengthy period. That is a risk.
I don’t understand the selection of Paige and unfortunately it meant the dreaded word of quotas again dominated a Springbok World Cup selection. Why, if Paige was always in the mix, did he never feature in four years?
It also unfairly shone a spotlight on every player of colour’s right to be there on rugby-based merit. The reality is more players of colour deserved to be in the squad on merit.
Jantjies had to be there if form and transformation were non-negotiable. I could understand Meyer selecting overseas-based Morné Steyn (flyhalf) and Schalk Brits (hooker) if they were his first choice. But both are third choice in their respective positions and that can’t be justified in the context of in-form local based Super Rugby performers like Ntubeni and Jantjies, especially given the transformation considerations.
Hendricks and Serfontein, as backs who have excelled in the last 18 months, have every right to feel wronged. Meyer has picked Pietersen who for the last two seasons has struggled to find the form that that made him a World Cup winner in 2007.
Meyer could have picked Damien de Allande as a centre/wing and left Pietersen at home to accommodate the skills of Serfontein.
Why two specialist fullbacks when Lambie was good enough to start the 2011 World Cup quarter-final at fullback?
The Bok squad lacks balance, hasn’t rewarded current form and certainly isn’t a victory for those who believe black player numbers equals transformation.
The boast has been of nine players of colour in 31, but the more accurate number is the same three of (Bryan Habana, Pietersen and Beast Mtiwareara) who started the 2011 World Cup quarter-final. This will be the only non-white trio that starts the big games.
Paige’s controversial squad inclusion has allowed the focus to be on politics and black player handouts when the real focus should be on how many veterans and injured players have been picked – players (not one of them black) who have hardly played this season yet got a free pass to the World Cup.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images