Heinrich Brüssow must sustain his best form throughout Super Rugby to end his time in the international wilderness, writes RYAN VREDE.
In 70 minutes on a March evening in Hamilton, Heinrich Brüssow reignited the debate around his suitability for a Springbok recall. In that time he scored two tries, effected two turnovers, beat two defenders and made 15 tackles (notwithstanding a yellow card thrown into the mix).
However, the full scope of his contribution cannot be appreciated through statistics alone. Brüssow, for the majority of the contest, tormented the Chiefs at the breakdown and was better overall than All Blacks counterparts Sam Cane and Liam Messam.
Those sympathetic to his cause were out in force thereafter, with social media platforms awash with praise and laden with calls for Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to abandon his perceived size bias and recall Brüssow.
The man once considered an indispensable member of the Springbok starting lineup, the slayer of the British & Irish Lions and nemesis of New Zealand hasn’t played for the national team since they crashed out of the 2011 World Cup.
To advocate his Test return on the evidence of one strong performance is preposterous. That Hamilton showing was, however, a stark reminder of his broad skill set.
In the wake of that match there was also no shortage of current coaches and ex-Boks calling for Brüssow’s return from the international wilderness. They would have been better advised to reflect on his performance a week earlier against the Crusaders. It would have tempered their view and made it more credible.
Brüssow was rendered a virtual non-factor in Christchurch. The seven-time champions seldom gave him a sniff at the breakdowns in the 57-14 drubbing and blunted him in the attacking and defensive collisions. The concerns around his value in matches where the opposition are more pragmatic on attack were raised once again.
These types of sub-standard performances, all too common for Brüssow, provide the perspective that must inform any debate around his international future.
That and the fact the incumbent Springbok openside flank Francois Louw, although out of sight and thus out of mind of most Brüssow supporters, is playing some very good rugby.
The pro-Brüssow camp’s primary contention is that their man is better than Louw. This is based almost entirely on watching him in Super Rugby and having only a vague awareness of Louw’s feats at Bath. Indeed, those feats have been exceptional.
He has played no small part in the club’s resurgence.
At the time of writing they were placed third in the Premiership and had narrowly lost their European Champions Cup quarter-final. The British press continue to marvel at the consistently high calibre of Louw’s performances, while Bath coach Mike Ford’s appraisal was emphatic: ‘Since he’s come back from injury, he’s delivered world-class performances in every game,’ he said.
Meyer also prefers Louw, arguing, albeit through veiled offerings, that he ticks more boxes than his challenger – stronger ball-carrier, more effective defender, an equally potent breakdown force and has the added advantage of being a lineout target. Meyer has also explained that the most recent refereeing trend as it pertains to the breakdown is for them to favour the attacking team, often at the expense of legal defensive contesting, which undermines the value of an out-and-out fetcher. Lest we forget, Louw plays in England, where all the Springboks’ World Cup games will be played.
Meyer, of course, doesn’t have to justify his preferences, especially when there isn’t much to choose between the two. The issue of whether, if his form holds, he finds a spot for Brüssow in his squad for the Rugby Championship is of greater interest.
While Meyer is unlikely to be swayed from his view that Brüssow does not warrant a start ahead of Louw, it would be difficult to counter his claims for a bench role, from which he could be deployed as an impact player. Tests tend to open up as they flow into their final quarter. This is the environment in which Brüssow has thrived, whether his sides have been chasing a game and have needed to get their hands on turnover ball, or whether they’ve been defending a lead and have required a ground assault to stifle or destroy the opposition’s attacking ambition. Brüssow’s experience in big tournaments strengthens his case.
Contrary to widespread perception, Meyer is not dogmatic in his views of players (or indeed tactics). Yes, he has preferences and long-standing philosophies on both, but he is open to having those challenged, or even being exposed as flawed. This is the hope that Brüssow and his legion of supporters have. The onus is on the 28-year-old to ensure he plays consistently at the level he did against the Chiefs in Super Rugby because such consistency cannot be ignored.
THEY SAID IT
‘I don’t see why Brüssow shouldn’t be selected. From the matches I’ve seen him play in, he’s been on top form in Japan and Super Rugby. Brüssow is consistent in his performances, he doesn’t blow hot one day and cold the other, so the chances of him letting anyone down are slim. If he’s selected later this year, there can’t be any complaints.’ – NTT SHINING ARCS ASSISTANT COACH HUGH REECE-EDWARDS
‘I’m confident Heyneke Meyer will select Brüssow; he would be silly not to. He was outstanding against the Chiefs. The World Cup takes place in a region where the forwards dominate the game and it’s one where Brüssow will undoubtedly thrive.’ – FORMER BOK LOOSE FORWARD ROB LOUW
‘He’s a quality player, but it depends on various Bok selection factors. Heyneke Meyer is spoilt for choice as there are a host of quality loose forwards at his disposal. Francois Louw has been tremendous in his last couple of Tests for the Boks and is Brüssow’s direct competitor. Brüssow is smaller than other loose forwards, which helps him challenge for the ball on the ground. If he complements Meyer’s game plan, he should definitely be selected.’ – FORMER BOK SCRUMHALF WERNER SWANEPOEL
‘There’s no denying Heinrich is a world-class fetcher, but he’s not the best at the lineouts because he is so short. His inclusion will depend on how Meyer wants to utilise his loose trio this year. Based on form I’d pick Heinrich for the Boks, but with all the other options available to Meyer, I’m not sure he will call on Brüssow. However, with several other players able to compete at the lineouts, I’d like to see him in the World Cup squad. His ability to contest on the ground might be the difference at a crucial stage during the World Cup.’ – FORMER PUMAS COACH JIMMY STONEHOUSE
– This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine