Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn must be lured back to South Africa if the policy remains that South African-based players will make for a more potent Springbok challenge at the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
If it simply isn’t possible because of economics then there should be a proper plan around the duo to ensure the Springboks are the greatest beneficiaries of their obvious talents.
It would be a travesty to have them watching from the stands over the next two years.
Test match conditioning has long been held as the biggest negative about investing in foreign-based players. There’s an argument that can be made for and one against it because as poor as France’s national team conditioning is, the opposite is true of teams like England and Ireland.
The duo are the two most prominent South African players who I believe can influence a better Springbok squad and also whose experience can be used in a playing and mentoring role.
I’d reject every time the notion that ‘local is lekker’ when it comes to the Springboks. I’ve never understood why the best players should be punished for maximising their worth overseas, especially when one considers that most Test careers these days are closer to five than 10 years.
South Africa’s rugby bosses must make decisions in the next 18 months that are best for the Springboks. They have to create an environment and agree on a philosophy that speaks to a winning transformed team.
It is possible to win and transform at the same time. It is possible for the Springboks to be a top three team but it is not the gimme it was a decade ago. England, Ireland, Scotland and to a lesser degree Wales have improved while South Africa in the last two years have regressed.
The measurement of the Springboks simply can’t be victories against Argentina, Italy and a French team that is in free fall, has won just seven of their last 22 Tests and a week after losing by a point to the Springboks escaped with a 23-all draw to Japan.
I know Rassie Erasmus’s return to South Africa, aligned with Jacques Nienaber’s expertise as one of the sport’s best defensive coaches, will put the Springboks in a stronger position than is currently the case.
Erasmus and Nienaber bring rugby intellectual capital comparable with the best in the world. The two would also have grown enormously working in the Irish set-up and being exposed to the challengers of European rugby.
But it’s the identification of who Erasmus believes are the best players that will ultimately determine his contribution to transforming the Springboks culturally and also on the scoreboard.
South Africa’s 2019 Springbok World Cup transformation policy is very clear in terms of selection; transformation targets and goals that for the past three years have not been met.
If eight or seven black players must start then find those players and identify the next seven or eight who slot in should the first choice black player options not be available.
Hopefully Erasmus can break the cycle of all his predecessors and from the outset inspire with his squad selections.
I’ve had enough discussions with him about the quality of black players to have hope that it will be a case of more and not less.
A coach has to believe in a certain player’s quality and Erasmus, just from those chats we’ve had, certainly has a belief in the skill set and ability of many black players who have consistently been overlooked as Springboks in the last two years.
There also has to be a balance between experience and youth and an open mind as to how the Springboks can benefit through the very best of those players up north.
Who knows whether it is three, five or 10 overseas-based South African players who can dramatically improve the Springboks. It would be madness to ignore the qualities of these players if there is a specific plan about how best to utilise their talents.
The key is identifying who they are and why they should be going to Japan in 2019. Some would be picked because they are the best and some may be there to mentor as much as to play.
The Springboks on tour lauded Vermeulen’s impact over the last fortnight. There’s a message in that in relation to other players and the influence they too could have on those players in the infancy of their Test careers.
Veteran Springbok wing JP Pietersen is an example of a player who could have played a squad role to soften the introduction of a new Test back three in 2017 who have struggled for presence as a collective.
Pat Lambie’s squad presence would be massive. Ditto Steyn. They don’t necessarily have to start but to have that kind of quality in the match 23 makes for a more imposing Springbok prospect.
There has to be an identification of who ranks one, two and three in every position because no coach gets to see his preferred 15 best in each position play every Saturday. Injuries have smashed to pieces the best intentions of selection and the strength of a selector is in the identification of who comes off the bench as much as who wears numbers one to 15.
History shows that kids don’t win Rugby World Cups. Hardened and experienced Test campaigners rule in World Cups.
Erasmus needs to identify these older players and then have the courage to pick them, regardless of which city they currently call home.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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