The Springboks will be stronger with Duane Vermeulen and Pierre Spies in the match 23, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
Pierre Spies polarises opinion among South African rugby supporters, but was it not for his individualism the Vodacom Bulls would have lost to the Lions.
Bulls loose forward Arno Botha was the player of the day, but the play of the day belonged to Spies, who made his impact as a substitute after leading the Bulls throughout the season as the starting No 8.
Spies, with more than 50 Test matches and 100-plus Super Rugby appearances, is constantly copping criticism for not being more of a physically imposing No 8.
Those servants of the anti-Spies society will continue to blast the player but fortunately those in the know, most critically Springbok coach and former Bulls mentor Heyneke Meyer, know the value of Spies, especially in a match 23 context.
Stormers No 8 Duane Vermeulen is – and has been for the last three seasons – the best No 8 in South African rugby. He is the Springbok No 8 incumbent and the obvious choice to start for the Boks this season. Vermeulen’s physicality has been a plus for the Boks since Meyer became the first Bok coach to invest in his talents.
Meyer, though, was the coach who first picked Spies to play Super Rugby as a teenager, experimenting with Spies as a wing before settling on him as a loose forward.
Springbok coach Jake White continued the investment in Spies with his first Bok selection in 2006 and the World Cup-winning coach remains a believer of Spies’s talents.
The out and out physicality of Vermeulen is not a Spies trait and White, like Meyer, has always urged supporters of good rugby players to zone in on Spies’s strengths as opposed to strengths they may necessarily want in the player.
Spies is a wonderful rugby player, but his loyalty to the Bulls has probably restricted the realisation of his full potential as an attacking rugby unit.
Spies, genetically, is in the Sonny Bill Williams league as an athlete and rugby player, but he's not a player who has possessed a natural mongrel consistent with some of the heavies who have played internationally in the back row.
There was a sophistication to Spies’s play when he first starred with the Bulls, SA U21s and Springboks, but the Bulls' insistence on a particular style of play numbed this athletic sophistication and Spies, far too often, has played a Super Rugby style that can only show up vulnerabilities in his game. The approach of the Bulls does not encourage the best of Spies. I can only imagine his impact if he played for a side like the Brumbies or the Crusaders in their pomp.
Spies is of the breed who needs to be played into space and whose strength in the tackle allows for the offload in the tackle. Spies is also a player who runs superb support lines and in the early years he benefited from the presence of strong runners like Danie Rossouw and Bakkies Botha. We also saw a glimpse of what could have been with the Bob Skinstad and Spies combination against England in 2007.
Spies has never been a player whose game has been built on hitting rucks or smashing defenders, be it with the ball in his hand or making the tackle. He has been strong, which is different to menacing. But it has made him no less a player and the quality of his pedigree was illustrated in how he stopped the Lions' momentum and turned around a lethargic Bulls second-half performance.
Spies’s offload in the tackle kept alive a rare Bulls attacking movement in a 25-minute period that had seen the Lions turn a 25-10 deficit into a 26-25 lead.
The move broke down when the Lions infringed and Spies, from the penalty, took a quick tap and backed his strength and footwork to take five Lions players over the line for the match-winning try.
It was the most significant play of the day but it was also the most significant play for Spies in reminding himself, more than Meyer or any of his supporters, just why he is still good enough to play for the Springboks, if not as the starting No 8.
Spies’s value to the Boks currently would be a role off the bench. He can cover all three loose-forward positions and at a push would not be lost if forced to replace a winger.
Vermeulen is the man in possession of the Bok No 8 jersey and that won’t change, fitness permitting. But Spies must be viewed in a different capacity as a Bok match-day option and not simply as the second- or third-choice No 8.
The Boks, to be successful, require quality across 23 players. Long gone are the days of a starting XV and reserves.
The Springboks, in the Rugby Championship and at the World Cup, would be stronger on match day if Vermeulen and Spies were in the 23.
The two’s vastly different skills, talents and strengths (combined) make the Boks a stronger match-day proposition.
It doesn’t have to be a case of one or the other; rather one and the other.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images.