Springbok touring squad raises questions

2009-11-07 00:00

WITHIN a couple of hours last weekend, we saw the best, the worst and the most sleazy of times in South African rugby.

The champion Blue Bulls and the Free State Cheetahs produced a sizzling Currie Cup final, a passionate contest filled with drama and honest endeavour. But just moments after Bulls captain Victor Matfield had lifted the Currie Cup in front of a wildly excited Loftus crowd, we were back to earth with a clunk and the Springbok squad announcement again produced bitter post-mortems and the predictable political fallout.

And, finally, we were treated to the half-baked confessions of former Blue Bulls and Springbok scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen to see out the weekend on a tawdry note.

The Bok selection produced the usual South African doublespeak. South African rugby boss Regan Hoskins assured the media that the squad was chosen purely on merit, but because many of the surprises involved players of colour, the sceptics saw the 37-man squad as a sop to those with political agendas. And, of course, Hoskins knows better than most that transformation is a part of South African life and that the national selectors are under constant pressure to play their part while somehow keeping the Springboks at the top of the rugby pile.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers compounded the problem when he said that selection was reward for Currie Cup form when in a number of instances it patently was not. Indeed, some players have seen little or no Currie Cup action, but have been preferred to those showing consistently good form. And then De Villiers made another rod for his own back by selecting his old favourite Earl Rose.

Say what you will about De Villiers, and most people have, but he does have the courage of his convictions. He knew that selecting the unpredictable Rose would play into the hands of his critics, but he pressed on. De Villiers coached Rose in the junior ranks and has always admired the young player’s attacking skills. He believes that Rose has been judged too harshly and that inconsistent selection rather than any lack of talent has hampered his progress.

De Villiers is looking for a fullback willing and able to counter-attack — and that was the reason for Ruan Pienaar’s switch from flyhalf earlier this year — and he believes Rose can develop into that player. The irony is that the Bok coach has added to the pressures on Rose by singing his praises in public.

Adi Jacobs is another De Villiers favourite and now he takes over from Jean de Villiers as the new Springbok inside centre. Last year, for both the Sharks and the Boks, the burly Jacobs was playing consistently good rugby, but he has been less impressive this year and his defensive limitations were exposed by the British Lions. Certainly those who watched the Sharks’ late decline in the Currie Cup would have been dismayed by Jacobs’s lack of spark and he had a poor semi-final.

But there is a strong belief among De Villiers and his selectors that Jacobs is a natural inside centre. They believe that he can manipulate defences with his stepping and elusive running and this will create openings for midfield partner Jaque Fourie and the support runners. We shall see in Toulouse next Friday night.

The Springbok scrum remains a concern and De Villiers’s selections in the front-row are bewildering. The successful Free Sate Cheetahs front-row forwards, who have bothered everyone in the country, even the Sharks’ all-Springbok line-up in the semi-final, have been ignored.

It is curious that Cheetahs’ props Wian du Preez and WP Nel, along with hooker Adriaan Strauss, have been overlooked. Instead we have the two Blue Bulls reserve hookers on tour and, in Heinke van der Merwe, a powerful loosehead prop who has not seen action since April, now selected as a tighthead.

Even the reticent Os du Randt, the former Springbok loosehead, expressed his dismay and said that De Villiers has contradicted himself in ignoring form players — like the Free State front-row forwards and wing Lionel Mapoe.

“Heinke didn’t even play in the Currie Cup. I don’t know why Peter (de Villiers) said that if he’s not doing it. Why would he motivate players to do well, and when they do perform, not choose them? This demotivates the guys and it makes it harder for local coaches to inspire them again. Peter should have said nothing.”

Du Randt is not the only one asking questions and you really cannot blame the public for being confused when the Springbok and senior Currie Cup coaches cannot agree on who the best players are.

Which brings us to the Posh and Becks of South Africa, Joost van der Westhuizen and his luckless wife, Amor Vittone.

While Pretoria and the Blue Bulls were celebrating their Currie Cup triumph on Sunday, one of their most famous sons, in the best traditions of Bill Clinton, was making a public apology for the lies he had told about his various sordid exploits.

“I am very, very sorry that I lied. Please forgive me,” he said and, he might have added, “Please buy my new book”.

Well, they did because his timing was impeccable. His biography Joost: The Man in the Mirror was launched the next day and in it the former Springbok captain and scrumhalf generously reveals his family’s most intimate secrets to a voracious public.

I am trying not to be sick with envy here, but his book was sold out on the first day. Joost, still with a keen nose for a gap, has taken marketing to new levels.

The chicks may well have come back to Joost, but at least they have returned clutching money bags.

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