Starting Oupa Mohoje against Australia may do the player more harm than good, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Mohoje is a talented player with tremendous potential. His speed off the mark as well as his ability to offload in the tackle has been evident at Super Rugby level, as has his ball-winning prowess at the lineout.
The Springbok coaching staff believes the 24-year-old is a star in the making. That said, it’s just as easy to understand why Mohoje is being talked about as a work in progress rather than the finished article.
Mohoje made his Super Rugby debut for the Cheetahs in early April. He played 10 games over the course of that competition, but only five as a starter.
He thrived in a looser contest, where his natural speed and exemplary handling skills came to the fore. When the game was tighter, however, he battled to impose himself as a ball-carrier, and as a defender.
That the kid has something special in terms of his attacking ability is not up for debate. Whether he has what it takes to not only survive, but excel at Test level, is a question that still needs to be answered.
Heyneke Meyer’s decision to include Mohoje in his first training squad of 2014 raised a lot of eyebrows. Many wondered if it was a decision that was made to please the politicians who wanted more players of colour in the national side.
The Bok coaching staff is adamant that Mohoje has improved since joining the squad, and that he will play an important role for the team in years to come. It’s a fair comment if you think about what will happen after the 2015 World Cup, with so many of the current players set to retire or pursue opportunities overseas. Mohoje will have developed into a more rounded player by then, and will have more chances to start.
That said, there should be opportunities for Mohoje and other fringe players in the buildup to the 2015 tournament. The Boks will travel to Europe this November, and the fixture against Italy should be used to experiment with a few different combinations.
He’s been overlooked as a starting option since the start of the 2014 Rugby Championship, but then that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
When Willem Alberts was ruled out of the Tests in Pretoria and Salta, Meyer favoured more experienced blindside flanks in Marcell Coetzee and Juan Smith. When the Boks travelled to Australasia, Warren Whiteley replaced Mohoje on the bench because the Lions loose forward covered blindside flank as well as No 8. At present, Mohoje is only a No 7 option.
Meyer has been under pressure to pick more black players this season. Following the defeat to the Wallabies in Perth, it emerged that Saru was planning to enforce racial quotas in the buildup to the 2019 World Cup.
The powers that be want to see progress with regards to transformation, and will be watching the Boks' next two games for evidence. It's a lot to ask considering the poor rate of transformation across the five Super Rugby franchises over the past five years.
It’s a difficult situation for a Bok coach under pressure, for a Bok team under pressure, and for a young black player who wants to be judged on his ability rather than the colour of his skin.
The Boks are still without their first-choice No 7, Willem Alberts, due to injury. Coetzee has done an excellent job at blindside in Alberts’ absence, but is expected to move to No 6 now that Francois Louw has been ruled out for the remainder of the Rugby Championship. Meyer has the option of selecting Schalk Burger at blindside, and yet, it's Mohoje who may run out at Newlands.
The comparison between Burger and Mohoje is grossly unfair. The former has been playing at the highest level for 11 years, while the latter has been playing in the top-flight for less than six months. Burger has 71 Test caps, Mohoje has one.
There will be a lot of pressure on the 24-year-old rookie this Saturday. There will be great expectations, expectations he will struggle to live up to.
There’s a lot to play for in the coming weeks. The Boks’ place in the world rankings is at stake, and there's still an opportunity to beat the All Blacks.
In an ideal world, Meyer would pick the strongest available back row for the coming games against the Wallabies and All Blacks. Raw rookies like Mohoje would continue to be nurtured until they were in a position to succeed.
Starting Mohoje before he is ready could have devastating consequences, not just for the Boks, but for the player's career.
Photo: Michael Sheen/BackpagePix