Adriaan Strauss and Morné Steyn have delivered timely reminders of the folly of prematurely writing off players who can still add value to the Springboks, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Why is there this obsession with four-year cycles in South African rugby?
After every World Cup, a new coach comes in, while new players take up the mantle following inevitable retirements and departures overseas.
Almost immediately, the talk begins to revolve around who are the players and leaders that should take the team to the next World Cup. Why?
Yes, World Cup success will always remain the ultimate end goal, and early planning for the global event is of the utmost importance, but it shouldn’t be the first and foremost preoccupation in year one.
At the start of a new era, winning should be the only priority. Surely a team in transition needs to be afforded the leeway to select any players that enable a difficult period of growth to be navigated as seamlessly as possible?
A team at the beginning of a new journey needs to be able to follow a mantra of ‘let’s walk before we can run’, and if conservative selections and game plans enable this to take effect, then so be it.
When Strauss was appointed as captain at the beginning of the season, many criticised the selection based on the fact that the 30-year-old will not be at the next World Cup. And when he announced his decision to retire from Test rugby next year, many called for him to immediately relinquish the leadership reins.
Similarly, when Steyn earned a recall after an injury to Pat Lambie, critics again labelled it a backward step that would hinder rather than help the national cause.
The fact that Strauss is a proven leader with 62 Test caps to his name was overlooked. And although Steyn has proven himself to be a match-winner and had the potential to bolster a backline shorn of experience and strong kicking, no one really seemed to care.
How satisfying then it must have been for both these players to turn back the clock and deliver game-defining performances that helped the Boks end a three-match losing streak on Saturday.
Strauss produced an inspired performance in the opening half (completing 59m, executing three clean breaks and winning a turnover), while Steyn was cool, calm and collected at flyhalf, slotting four penalties and two drop goals.
On the eve of Saturday’s Test against the Wallabies, colleague Jon Cardinelli and I bumped into Strauss at the team hotel in Pretoria.
Although Strauss was as affable as ever, it was clear to see that he was at least somewhat feeling the burden of pressure that has prevailed over the Bok camp pretty much since they suffered a first-ever loss to Ireland in South Africa at the beginning of June.
Yet, that clearly translated into a defiant performance from Strauss, who was visibly emotional at the post-match press conference: ‘The team will always come first for me. It’s never nice to hear that some people question your commitment, especially because when I made the decision [to retire next year], it was always with the team in mind. I remain my own biggest critic.’
It was a statement that spoke volumes about the character of the man leading the Boks.
Similar sentiments were also expressed by Steyn when he faced the media a little later in the night. The Bok stalwart intimated that he was fully aware of the criticism that had been directed his way, but he reiterated that his only priority was to contribute in any way possible to the team.
Strauss and Steyn aren’t part of the long-term future for the Springboks. But in the here and now, they are the type of players that continue to provide valuable input on and off the field.
As stakeholders in the game, we should never stop asking for answers when there is underperformance from the team or individuals, but perhaps there should also be some perspective and appreciation for such long-serving players that continue to sacrifice blood, sweat and tears for the Boks.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images