Hailing Dad’s Army

The value of veteran Springboks was exhibited in full at Newlands on Saturday. Critics of their selection should shut it, writes RYAN VREDE.

For around three quarters of the Test I watched in horror as the Springboks stumbled from one brainless side-to-side attack to another. Australia would have been relishing that approach, given that they must have expected a more direct, physical confrontation. With the perspective of seeing the Wallabies defensive formation live, the Springboks rarely troubled them and weren't ever going to. The switch to a more pragmatic approach was critical and highly effective, and can be credited in large part for their victory.

The other decisive factor was the introduction of highly experienced Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger, the latter putting in a performance for the ages, among others. There was also a tactical masterstroke in accommodating Victor Matfield at blindside flank, where he spent some time playing for Toulon in 2008.  Heyneke Meyer, recognising the need for been-there-done-that players, entrusted his senior statesmen with the task of bailing them out. They obliged. 

It would be remiss not to note Jean de Villiers's contribution. I remain perplexed by the ongoing criticism directed at him by a large section of the South African rugby fraternity. Much of the vitriol comes from up north, where the Bulls bias doesn't allow for an objective assessment on De Villiers. He is immense, a proven match-winner and accomplished leader. Under his watch the Springboks have yet to lose a game in Europe, are unbeaten at home by any team other than the All Blacks and have become the team best-placed to challenge the world champions' dominance. 

The selection of a core of experienced players has made Meyer a target for severe abuse by a rugby public hungry for the next big thing. He should feel vindicated for his decision to include them. Indeed, I hold firm that the non-selection of Morné Steyn is stifling the Springbok cause not aiding it. The next big thing played at flyhalf for the Springboks on Saturday and his inexperience was laid bare for all to see. Handré Pollard is a fine player but a raw one. His selection is Meyer bowing to public pressure. Steyn, in the context of the Springboks' current phase of evolution, is still the man.

Francois Hougaard played well at Newlands and one hopes it's the start of a string of strong performances rather than a strong one in a continued mediocre run. However, while he appears to be the future in the scrumhalf role, the present is still very much another of Meyer's veterans, Fourie du Preez, who remains the pre-eminent No 9 on the planet. His absence through injury has been sorely felt. With him in the mix the Springboks are a formidable side. Without him they are simply a very good one. 

The view that the experienced players are curtailing the Springboks' progress is, at best, ill-informed. We are too quick to relegate players of advancing age to the scrap heap. Certainly for players like Bakkies Botha or JP Pietersen, it's difficult to build cases for them starting ahead of Eben Etzebeth or Cornal Hendricks respectively, but their current deployment gives the Springboks punch off the bench that few elite sides can match. Starters like Matfield and De Villiers do so because they are the best in their positions, not because of Meyer's charity.

I suspect this line of criticism will endure, but it's not rooted in fact. It's the imagined sickness of the Springboks by men and women infected by a culture that's always in search of new.

Photo: Luke Walker/Gallo Images

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