Boks must set sentiment aside

The Springboks cannot afford any sentimental selections when the 31-man World Cup squad is announced on Friday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

It seems an obvious suggestion, but it’s not always so simple.

There are two clear examples of the difficulty related to such decisions, and sometimes there is no way to know if it was the right or wrong call until there is the opportunity to reflect with hindsight.

Few will forget Nick Mallett’s controversial decision to omit Gary Teichmann from his World Cup plans in 1999, opting instead to back a young and talented Bob Skinstad. A few years later, Mallett admitted it was the one thing he would have done differently, having underestimated the influence of Teichmann’s leadership and presence in the squad. The Boks, in the end, bowed out at semi-final stage.

At the last World Cup, it was effectively the other way around. Peter de Villiers chose to back the experience and leadership of John Smit despite the obvious claims of a young, fit and in-form Bismarck du Plessis. Upon reflection once he’d left his post as Bok coach, De Villiers acknowledged that while Du Plessis might have been the better player, he remained insistent that selecting Smit was the correct choice based on his ability to inspire his teammates.

Some four years later, it’s not a dissimilar selection poser that Heyneke Meyer will have been pondering for some time.

At the end of last year, Jean de Villiers suffered his much-discussed horror knee injury. Initial fears were that it could threaten his World Cup involvement, but a ‘miraculous’ recovery saw him make his comeback against the World XV in July.

It was clear, though, that he remained some way from being back to his best, and it was on the eve of his return to Test rugby against Argentina on 8 August that he acknowledged it was his responsibility to perform and prove worthy of selection. As is the case for each and every Bok.

We all know how that Test turned out for the Boks in Durban as they suffered their first-ever defeat to the Pumas, and the unlucky De Villiers suffered a fractured jaw that has placed him on a four-to-six week recovery programme.

Talented Jesse Kriel staked a strong claim for selection in the absence of De Villiers during the start of the Rugby Championship, but he is untested in the slower paced nature of Test rugby in the northern hemisphere.

The value of De Villiers’s experience, particularly from a defensive point of view at outside centre, cannot be discounted. Also in terms of his presence as a player and person, he remains integral to the team dynamics.

Yet, the fact remains, it’s only once the Boks have failed or succeeded at the World Cup that this decision may well be praised or pilloried. That is the nature of the beast. I’d undoubtedly have De Villiers in my squad, starting him at 13, and use Kriel as an impact player off the bench.

Am I certain this would be the best bet for the Boks to win the World Cup? Of course not, but I do believe the rugby decisions to include De Villiers still outweigh any sentimental ones.

Other puzzlers relate to the recovery and reintegration plans for injured players such as Duane Vermeulen, Fourie du Preez and Marcell Coetzee.

Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Heinrich Brüssow are just some of many others who could be argued for or against in this week leading up to the World Cup squad announcement.

Meyer, ultimately, will have to weigh up form and fitness, youth and experience, and somehow separate sentiment from the equation. Good luck to him.

Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

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