Hooker issue needs balls to solve

2011-09-03 00:00

THE Springboks have all the necessary tools to do the job in New Zealand and the challenge now is ensuring they are mentally and physically sharp to defend their Rugby World Cup title.

This is the view of former national coach Ian McIntosh who pooh-poohs arguments that the Springboks are playing outdated rugby and that the World Cup in New Zealand is a bridge too far for John Smit’s ageing team.

He would, of course, say that, wouldn’t he? Mac is a Springbok selector (well, some of the time) and he was involved in the process which produced the 30-man World Cup squad.

But he does believe that the planning and thought of the past few months will pay off in the weeks ahead.

“Yes, it is a hugely experienced squad, but I also think it is well-balance and talented,” he told Witness Sport this week.

Mac says that the Dad’s Army label is unfair.

“I think people forget that the team that won the World Cup in 2007 was a very young one. Their average age was just 24 and some of those players were still making their way in Test rugby.

“Now we have a team with an average age of 28 and they should be at the peak of their powers. They are certainly far younger collectively than Martin Johnson’s team which won the World Cup in Australia in 2003.”

H also does not believe the Springboks will lack ambition because many of the players have already won World Cup medals.

“I think the sheer excitement of the event and the chance to make history by being the first team to retain the title will get the competitive juices flowing.”

McIntosh says that many hours of discussion on squad selection had produced the right balance with the versatility of a number of players adding to the depth of talent.

“I think we are covered in all areas and we have options,” he says without elaborating.

The only surprise selections were on the wing (Odwa Ndungane instead of Lwazi Mvovo), at flank (Francois Louw ahead of Ashley Johnson, Jean Deysel or Keegan Daniel) and lock where the experienced Johann Muller was preferred to Flip van der Merwe and Alistair Hargreaves.

But there were obvious reasons behind these selections. Mvovo is a specialist wing while Ndungane, if included on the bench, also covers fullback. And, if there is an injury to one of the specialist wings (Bryan Habana or JP Pietersen), Mvovo can be quickly flown to New Zealand.

The selectors, in opting for Louw, wanted a mongrel on the flank, someone who could do the work on the ground if Heinrich Brüssow was sidelined.

Muller, in the absence of the injured Andries Bekker, was selected as cover for Victor Matfield because of his organisational ability in the lineout.

Coach Peter de Villiers has said that ideally the Springboks could have done with one more Test before the RWC and McIntosh agrees.

“But perhaps it is better to go to New Zealand slightly under-cooked rather than risk staleness and battle fatigue. I’m absolutely convinced that we were right in not risking the full squad on the Tri-Nations tour and a number of the senior players are fresh and blossoming.”

McIntosh believes that preparing the team’s minds and bodies over the next fortnight will be crucial.

“If we are sharp, focused and fit, I’m confident we will do very well.”

McIntosh would not be drawn on the John Smit-Bismarck du Plessis conundrum.

The rugby public has been split by those who want Smit on the field because of his remarkable leadership qualities and the many Du Plessis supporters who argue that probably the best hooker in the world should start.

“That’s a call that Peter de Villiers and the team management must now make,” Mac says.

The form of Bismarck du Plessis in helping the Boks to their Tri-Nations win over the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth last month suggests that the Sharks hooker should start in the tougher games. This would result in Victor Matfield captaining the team and Smit playing off the bench.

The backers of Smit, who has improved his game in recent weeks, believe he should take the team on to the field and stay while the going is tight before making way for Du Plessis in the second half. Certainly Du Plessis is far more an impact player than Smit.

De Villiers and the selectors have been roundly criticised for created this problem by naming Smit their World Cup squad captain, but a number of former Springboks, who realise the importance of having the right leader, are convinced the decision is right.

Corné Krige, the Bok captain at the 2003 World Cup, said De Villiers had learnt from mistakes made in the past.

“When Nick Mallett was coach (in 1999), he faced a similar selection poser between Gary Teichmann and Bob Skinstad. He underestimated Teichmann’s value when the team needed a good leader,” Krige said.

Teichmann, one of the most successful captains in Springbok history, also supported Smit’s appointment.

“John Smit’s captaincy is imperative. There is no doubt that he should be in the 22-man match squad,” Teichmann argued.

And John Allan, who played hooker for South Africa and Scotland, said the Springboks would have no chance to win the World Cup without Smit.

“He has the respect of all the players and is priceless in the Bok team-environment.”

He is the only player in the squad, added Allan, who can mould all the other senior players from different provinces and backgrounds into a tightly-knit unit.

The Springboks, for all their experience and talent, do have a number of problem areas. They need to improve their frontline defence and they lack quality back-up to Jannie du Plessis at tighthead. And then scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, a key figure, needs to rapidly find his old form and fullback Frans Steyn needs to rapidly find his old figure.

But De Villiers’ challenge is the most critical. He has to keep two hookers (and a sceptical rugby public) happy by making the most effective use of Smit’s wisdom and composure as the captain while also exploiting the talents of Bismarck du Plessis, one of the most dynamic forwards in the world game.

It is a tough call, one that needs to be made without any sentiment. De Villiers, in short, has to show some balls.

 

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