Players not included in Heyneke Meyer's extended squad could yet play for the Springboks this year, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
Take a deep breath, pause and then breathe again. No need, just yet, for the hysterical or for spitting the dummy. No need, just yet, for dismissing the Springboks’ World Cup challenge on the basis of Heyneke Meyer’s 49-strong Bok squad.
Reserve all judgement on the Boks’ World Cup prospects until Meyer confirms the 31 that will present the South African challenge in England.
Meyer, the primary selector, would have stunned many with a squad that excluded Vodacom Bulls’ Springboks Pierre Spies and Francois Hougaard. Spies and Hougaard played in the 2011 World Cup and both were considered among Meyer’s favourites when he coached the Bulls for a decade.
Both would add value to any Springbok World Cup squad. That’s my view – and I know it’s not a view very popular with SA’s rugby public outside Pretoria.
Spies has been the target of everyone for being a ruck inspector and for not being good enough. I have, and always will maintain that Spies, if used correctly for his athletic ability, would add value to any extended squad and match-day 23.
He's a player who needs to play off the shoulder of a bruiser at No 8 if he is a flank starting option, alternatively a No 8 who plays off the shoulder of a bruiser at closed side flank. His best role currently in a national context would be off the bench because of his versatility to play 6, 7 and 8, cover as a No 5 lock and even be played on the wing – a situation which allows for a six-two forwards and backs substitutes’ bench.
Hougaard, who can cover 9, 11 and 14, is another player whose strength is what he brings to a match squad, as opposed to a starting XV.
The game has long since evolved from 15 plays 15. It’s a 23-man effort that wins big Tests and the biggest tournaments. The quality of the substitutes bench is what separates the very best from the occasional best. The top eight teams at the World Cup are evenly weighted when the starting XVs are compared, but it’s who wears numbers 16-23 who will prove the definitive factor.
Meyer knows more than any coach the strengths and weakness of Spies and Hougaard, and he has always believed there to be more strength than vulnerability. Many are applauding the exclusion of the duo.
Spies, in particular, is regularly mocked on social media forums by the bloke who has never held a rugby ball to the bloke who wore the same Springbok number on his back.
Each to his own, but I have a suspicion Meyer will still include both players in his final 31.
Meyer’s squad of 49 includes 13 injured players who are unlikely to play Test rugby in the next month. Of those 13, a big percentage will go to the World Cup.
Meyer knows who his ideal match 23 is and he also knows injuries will prevent him from ever selecting his preferred 23.
Meyer also has the responsibility to transformation. Like it or not, there is a count between white and black.
Like it or not, there is a minimum black quota in terms of the World Cup selection. It’s not to say the black player picked is inferior in any way to the white player, but the apathy in regional and national selections when it comes to transformation since 1995 means Meyer can’t simply apply a selection rationale that favours his gut instinct as head coach.
There will be black players whose selections will be debated; equally, white players.
So it isn’t as simple as quotas denying a white player. The debate over Jaco Kriel, for example, can easily be conducted without bringing race into it.
Kriel was the best loose forward in the 2014 Currie Cup and consistently has been the best performing South African flanker in this year’s Super Rugby tournament.
A place should have been found for him in a squad of 49 – and I still think we’ll see him in green and gold before the end of the Rugby Championship.
Meyer’s squad is consistent with selections he has made in the three years of coaching the Boks, but it’s not the World Cup 31.
And until that selection is made, all talk of the Springboks’ World Cup prospects is premature.
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