South African Rugby
Springboks there for the taking?
October 27, 2008
Some Sharks supporters nail home the message after their Currie Cup Final triumph over the Blue Bulls © Getty Images
The Springboks may be there for the taking on their end-of-season tour after the decision not to include a specialist flyhalf in their squad.
With no overseas-based players having been considered, the expectation is that the responsibility will fall on Ruan Pienaar's shoulders to wear the Boks' No.10 jersey.
Some experts believe fly-half will ultimately prove to be Pienaar's best position, but he played scrum-half for the Sharks in Saturday's Currie Cup final. The prospect of him lining up to take important penalties in a Test match won't inspire confidence because he missed three in the first half of Saturday's game.
The fact was not magnified because the Sharks ultimately won 14-9, but it also won't be lost on the coaching teams of Wales, Scotland and England. Even if the Bok selectors were not going to consider overseas-based players, which includes Bath's Butch James, they could have opted for a steady performer like Western Province No.10 Peter Grant.
However, the Boks are banking on Pienaar, with Frans Steyn and Earl Rose in reserve. Steyn played centre for the Sharks on Saturday, while Rose's contribution in key games for the Lions this year was modest enough for his provincial coach, Eugene Eloff, to issue a plea that he should not yet be picked for the Boks.
That, however, did not prevent De Villiers from picking Rose.
Another major talking point was the hooker position, with Chiliboy Ralepelle having managed to make it despite not being considered the best hooker at the Blue Bulls. His cameo off the bench in Saturday's Currie Cup final was unimpressive.
The talk is that John Smit will be used as a tighthead prop, meaning Bismarck du Plessis will probably wear the No.2 jersey in the first Test against Wales. It's a bold and some would say risky move against a powerful Welsh scrum.
The expectation was that Bismarck's brother, Jannie, would come into the reckoning at tighthead prop, but like Grant he is among the standby players. An obvious recipe against the Boks therefore might be to attack their scrum and put heavy pressure on Pienaar.
For all his natural ability and possibly even potential to make the fly-half berth his own in the long term, these may just be uncertain days that could be exploited by South Africa's opponents. Be warned, however, that it would be utterly foolish to write South Africa off. The squad De Villiers and his fellow selectors picked remains brimful of talent and even at the end of their season the players will be out to make an impression with an eye on next year's tour of the British and Irish Lions.
Rose and Cheetahs openside flank Heinrich Brüssow are the newcomers in the squad.
The Bok squad:
Forwards: Andries Bekker, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brüssow, Bismarck du Plessis, Ryan Kankowski, Victor Matfield, Tendai Mtawarira, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Brian Mujati, Danie Rossouw, John Smit (captain), Juan Smith, Pierre Spies, Gurthrö Steenkamp.
Backs: Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, Adrian Jacobs, Conrad Jantjes, Ricky Januarie, Jongi Nokwe, Odwa Ndungane, Ruan Pienaar, JP Pietersen, Earl Rose, Francois Steyn.
On standby: Peter Grant, Jannie du Plessis, Johann Muller, Wynand Olivier, Adriaan Strauss, Heinke van der Merwe, Jano Vermaak.
The past couple of weeks have provided an interesting insight into the stormy environment in which South African rugby operates.
Two interlocking issues - controversial comments attributed to loose forward Luke Watson and a fight about the Springbok emblem - have hogged the headlines.
Watson reportedly said he had to "heep himself from vomiting on the Springbok jersey", whereas the emblem came under attack from politicians at a recent national sport summit in Durban. Watson's father, anti-apartheid activist Cheeky, is among the lobbyists trying to have the emblem removed.
The ruling African National Congress quickly issued a statement supporting the emblem, adding that it would remain until sufficient consultation has taking place. However, the ANC is not speaking with one voice, with the controversial chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on sport, Butana Komphela, continuing his attack on the emblem.
The Minister of Sport and Recreation, Makhenkesi Stofile, even claimed the emblem belonged to his department and wants to claim outstanding royalties from SA Rugby. Stofile's claims were quickly discredited, but the onslaught on SA Rugby from politicians has been fierce and blatantly unfair.
Some critics believe it is an attempt at deflecting attention from what should be the real issue at hand - South Africa's dreadful performance at the Olympic Games in Beijing.
As for Luke Watson, his form during this year's Tri-Nations and the Currie Cup did not warrant inclusion in the Bok squad. He issued a statement this past Friday declaring he would not be available to tour, but the publicity stunt impressed nobody.
Brave as dad Cheeky's stand may have been a few decades ago, the younger Watson has been out of order and it may not be long before his only viable rugby option lies with a Northern Hemisphere club.
He is facing a disciplinary hearing for his reported comments in a speech at a rugby festival at the University of Cape Town early in October.
Rumours are doing the rounds in the Republic that Saracens could be keen on acquiring the likes of Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana after next year's tour of the British and Irish Lions.
There is cross ownership between Saracens and South African provincial sides such as Western Province and the Blue Bulls. De Villiers said this past week he might at some stage consider a sabbatical similar to that of All Black flyhalf Dan Carter.
However, Western Province aren't keen on the idea, with managing director Rob Wagner having said it won't work unless the northern and southern hemisphere play in the same window.
De Villiers was South Africa's star performer this year and has excelled in his role as captain of the Stormers and Western Province.
Stephen Nell is the senior rugby writer at South African daily newspaper Die Burger. He has also worked as a rugby correspondent for the South African Press Association and the Cape Times.