Struggling players should not be discarded, writes MARK KEOHANE.
Frans Steyn is proof that the best need to be nurtured, managed and coached. They need investment and guidance.
South African rugby’s natural pool of talent has long been a blessing and a curse. Too often in this country the belief is there will be another good one at one of the many fantastic school rugby nurseries. So often we lose the good one just as he is becoming very good. Or we don’t mind losing him if the belief is he wasn’t really ever that good.
It’s a mindset that has to change, and if it does, South African rugby will be consistently strong in Super Rugby and internationally.
Players mature at a different pace but there has to be patience in allowing them to develop. And that means allowing for a player to make mistakes, stumble and not always be at the peak of his game.
Six months ago so many were prepared to write off Steyn. He was deemed uninterested, out of shape and not good enough to play for South Africa.
Sharks director of rugby and former Springbok coach Jake White, who identified Steyn, as a schoolboy, to play for the Boks, has shown the folly of the haste of so many South African rugby supporters to forget and move on.
Pat Lambie was the flavour of the month. Then Johan Goosen. Now it is Marnitz Boshoff. I’ve even heard some suggest Handré Pollard hasn’t cut it. He’s 20 years old!
Goosen needs to play. Lambie needs to play. Pollard needs to play. And in the opening month of Super Rugby Boshoff has shown his potential because he has got the chance to play.
There are so many good options and not every player is going to be a Springbok, or at least a regular Test starter. Some will make their mark as outstanding Super Rugby and Currie Cup players. There is no crime in this.
Super Rugby, as a tournament, has become a marathon played over six months. Yet, after a fortnight, the epitaphs of some have been written and others have been knighted on the basis of a performance or three.
It is frustrating and the rugby media are largely culpable of adding to the ignorance when, as the students and storytellers of the game, they should be adding perspective.
Victor Matfield’s comeback is a case in point. Matfield has returned at the request of the national coach to add intellectual capital to the Springboks. He has a specific role to mentor Pieter-Steph du Toit and fast-track his transition to a world-class No 5 lock.
The national coach does not expect Matfield to be the Matfield of 2007. He wants 20 to 40 minutes a Test out of him and he wants him actively involved in a squad context.
Matfield has to log game time for the Bulls between now and June. His body has to get conditioned to the grind of playing regularly and he will be assessed at the end of May. Yet informed commentators were ready to retire him again after a 30-minute first-up effort against the Sharks.
Perspective, people. Perspective.
Another player who is taking a beating is Francois Hougaard. The criticism of his performance is justified but not the haste with which so many want to book him a ticket to a future in European club rugby. He is too good a player to be bad.
There has to be an investment in Hougaard, not just as a scrumhalf, but as an integral member of an expanded Springbok squad.
Depth at a national level is what will make the Boks a consistent threat to New Zealand’s dominance of the past five years. New Zealand have built depth in every position and have disregarded age and often Super Rugby form with some of their X-factor players.
Hougaard has the X factor. As does Steyn. As does Matfield. These players, and they are just three examples of many in South African rugby, have done it before at Super Rugby and Test levels. They can do it again.
Have faith, people.
South African rugby is strong and healthy but it would be so much healthier if we nursed our players in times of hardship instead of burying them.
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