The decision to back three young scrumhalves ahead of Springbok Rudy Paige points to a bold, new approach from the Bulls, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On Monday, new Bulls coach John Mitchell made a decisive move when he opted to omit Paige from the 38-man Super Rugby squad.
The 28-year-old recently underwent an operation, but was still widely expected to be the frontrunner for the Bulls’ No 9 jersey once fit, particularly following the departure of Piet van Zyl.
The fact remains that Paige has been the second- or third-choice Springbok scrumhalf for the past two years, and while his game time has been limited, he has featured in 11 Tests since 2016. Yet he has now dropped to fourth in the Bulls’ scrumhalf pecking order.
While the omission stole most of the headlines following Monday’s squad announcement, a closer analysis of Mitchell’s reasoning behind the decision provided insight into the approach the Bulls may well be looking to adopt this season.
‘I just thought it was time to move forward with the young No 9s,’ Mitchell said. ‘I like a very fast No 9 and certainly all the No 9s that we’ve selected have that ability.’
It points to a desire for the Bulls to continue evolving their game, and to prioritise quick phase-play and speed of service from a No 9 who will pose a threat around the fringes.
One also shouldn’t forget that it was Mitchell who inspired a new approach from the Lions when he coached the Johannesburg-based side to the 2011 Currie Cup title.
By backing talented youngsters such as Ivan van Zyl (22), André Warner (24) and Embrose Papier (20), Mitchell is also set to expose the next generation of players in a position that remains a serious problem area in South African rugby.
Since the 2011 World Cup, there has been a relative revolving door at scrumhalf. Ruan Pienaar predominantly started as the Boks’ first-choice scrumhalf despite being based abroad, while Fourie du Preez also started in 12 Tests before retiring after a final push to the 2015 tournament.
There have also been opportunities for Francois Hougaard (11 starts at scrumhalf), Faf de Klerk (nine), Cobus Reinach (three), Paige (three) and Jano Vermaak (one). Last year, Ross Cronjé started 10 Tests.
So while Paige can certainly feel aggrieved to have missed out on Super Rugby selection, it’s clear that Mitchell is looking to the future.
‘Embrose Papier is up and coming and potentially a world-class scrumhalf – he’s demonstrated that in his age group and played international rugby at U20. I just think it is time for him to start at Super Rugby level,’ he said.
In addition, Mitchell has also clearly demonstrated his ability to make some merciless selections that will not be influenced by sentiment or a player’s reputation.
One way or another, the Bulls are moving in a new direction.
Photo: Johan Rynners/Gallo Images