Selection dilemma for Springboks
March 15, 2010
Is is time Springboks coach Peter de Villiers considered the benefits of squad rotation? © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers BJ Botha Bakkies Botha Jean de Villiers Butch James John Smit CJ van der Linde Joe van Niekerk
South Africa's decision to consider overseas-based players for their June 5 showdown against Wales in Cardiff raises the inevitable question about just how competitive such a Springbok team will be.
Furthermore, there is the issue of the Springbok brand, which already took a knock with the second string's losses to Leicester and Saracens on last year's European tour.
Of course, we have to accept that rugby is a business and therefore overseas teams want to play against the Springboks. A match against a South Africa A or Invitation side simply would not have the same prestige attached or sell as many tickets.
Shortly after I broke the news of the Wales Test in our Sunday newspaper Rapport, Bok coach Peter de Villiers held an information session with rugby media in Stellenbosch to give us an idea of what he has in mind for the game.
Reports that it was sprung on him and that he was not consulted were untrue. South Africa had initially thought they would be playing France in London on June 12 due to the clash with Fifa's World Cup in South Africa. Had that been the case, Cardiff the week before would have been a more sensible destination.
However, rugby and football somehow managed to find enough common ground in South Africa for the Springboks to play France at Newlands one day after the French and Uruguay meet in a footballing fixture in the new Cape Town Stadium. This means that the trip to Cardiff is distinctly more tricky and forces South Africa to think out of the box.
De Villiers as a result dropped strong hints that he would like to run the rule over a number of overseas-based Springboks. Bath fly-half Butch James and Toulon flanker Joe van Niekerk are just two examples of players that can still play their way into De Villiers's World Cup plans.
Consider then other overseas-based players such as props CJ van der Linde (Leinster) and BJ Botha (Ulster), loose forward Wikus van Heerden (Saracens), utility back Frans Steyn (Racing Metro) and centre Jean de Villiers (Munster) to name just a few and you realise that South Africa can field a competitive side.
Some of these players have to make the choice between playing for the Barbarians against Ireland in Limerick on June 4 or the Springboks the following day, but one would think that the lure of the Green and Gold would prove too powerful.
Of course the timing of the Springboks versus Wales clash remains awkward. It is a week after the Super14 final and the climax of the Northern Hemisphere season. One would imagine that South Africa cannot consider players involved in a possible Super 14 final. At this stage the Bulls and resurgent Stormers occupy positions one and two on the log.
If they happen to make it to a final - far too early to make such an assumption, but possible - the overseas-based players won't be complemented with the best from South Africa.
Peter de Villiers has also given an undertaking not to select more than two contracted Springboks from any particular province in South Africa. Only 19 players are contracted by the governing body, with the rest on retainers at their provincial unions.
He is likely to still give the Bok side an experienced spine against Wales. This would mean that World Cup-winning captain John Smit is likely to be involved, particularly with the Sharks struggling to make much of an impression in the Super14.
The rest of the side is likely to be determined by circumstances. If, for example, the Stormers do not make the Super14 final, it may well be a terrific opportunity to start shaping a second-choice lock pairing that will ultimately succeed Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.
One of Flip van der Merwe (Bulls) and Adriaan Fondse (Stormers) can perhaps partner the giant Andries Bekker. Of course, De Villiers can also ask Ulster-bound Johann Muller to do a job.
Scientific opinion is that South Africa should broaden their base of internationals by another 8-10 players so that the second stringers can shoulder a greater burden at the next Rugby World Cup than was the case in France.
The reason for this is that the current crop of senior Boks are getting older and six successive games at a tournament may prove too much.
The year's schedule of 14 Tests and a match against the Barbarians in December may well force De Villiers to start considering the merits of rotation and use it as a means of building his depth.
Nevertheless, the assignment against Wales remains an awkward one for South Africa. It certainly will be interesting to see what team ultimately takes the field.
Stephen Nell is the rugby correspondent for the Rapport newspaper in South Africa