Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Wales centre TOM SHANKLIN talks about backing Handre Pollard for Bok pivot, why Warren Gatland deserves more respect and previews the Test in Cardiff on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Ahead of Saturday, how would you assess South African and Welsh rugby?
Tom Shanklin: Over the last couple of years, the Springboks haven’t had the greatest of seasons. There is plenty of talent in that team, but it just doesn’t seem to be clicking for one reason or another. South Africa seem to shine in patches, but are not gelling on a consistent basis. I don’t think they are as bad a team as some people make out - they still possess some amazing players. I have been impressed with the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen and Jesse Kriel. It was obviously disappointing for the Springboks to start off their end-of-year tour by losing to Ireland in the manner in which they did. However, on the evidence of last week’s Test in Padova, the Boks went back to basics against Italy and avenged last season’s nightmare in Florence. They were strong up front, carried well and I personally believe the Springboks are a stronger team with Handre Pollard at flyhalf. I think he’s a better player (than Elton Jantjies) and is more suited to the style of play the Boks employ. The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to base your game plan around someone that is consistent in the No 10 position. Moreover, Pollard is big and strong and, when you have a running threat like him, he is able to ride the tackles well and gets his shoulders through the hit. Individually, the current Springbok players are very good, but it’s whether or not they can come together as a unit and team collective. The same can be said for Wales who are going through a transition at the moment. We have moved away from the physical, confrontational same-way rugby and are trying to adopt a more of a ball-in-hand approach. It is underscored by the fact that regular Gloucester-based flyhalf, Owen Williams, turned out at inside centre for the last couple of Test matches. Wales tend to pick two flyhalves in the backline, which allows them to play wider and create more opportunities on attack. (New-Zealand born Hadleigh Parkes will start at inside centre and earn his debut against South Africa). Wales are in the process of finding a style that suits them and the Welsh public will have to be patient. I believe Welsh fans are going to have to bear with the team and, whether they click on Saturday, during the Six Nations or after the Six Nations, it’s going to take a bit of time because they are going through a change in attack philosophy. I wouldn’t say it’s two teams at the peak of their powers heading into the contest because both are a work in progress.
Sport24 asked: Is it unfair Toby Faletau has been released but Francois Louw hasn’t?
Tom Shanklin: From the outside looking in, it could seem like double standards. Releasing players for the fourth international of the autumn is always very unclear and is a grey area. However, my understanding is that Faletau has a full international release clause in his contract. I believe he has a written agreement with his club side - Bath - guaranteeing he can join up with Wales when called upon. However, Bath are bracing for a fine because it goes against the Premiership Rugby’s policy over the release of non-England players for the fourth internationals. Warren Gatland also tried to get Jamie Roberts released, but his English club side played hard ball. (Roberts faced potential disciplinary action from Harlequins had he not returned from Test match duty this week.) Make no mistake, the comings and goings in the Welsh camp this week would have created a degree of disruption because part of the strength of the squad revolves around keeping it tight and together as a unit. When you see players leave and new ones come in, the team set-up can’t and won’t have the same vibe and ethos. However, the Welsh team that takes to the field on Saturday will be highly motivated because they know that if they don’t beat South Africa it won’t be deemed as a successful end-of-year campaign. This is a huge game for Wales as they always want a southern hemisphere scalp on their mantle piece. Wales won against South Africa last year, and the Welsh public will be pretty excited about trying to get another win - and southern scalp - because that is what you are judged on. At the end of the campaign, people will ask: Did we defeat a southern hemisphere outfit?
Sport24 asked: How would you compare the current Bok side to those you tackled?
Tom Shanklin: During my 70-Test career for Wales, I played against the Springboks on nine occasions between 2002 and 2010. The teams I played against were special sides that were more used to playing together. The partnerships were there and, in terms of playing personnel, there weren’t too many ins and outs. The Boks are a dangerous team individually, but are an unsettled team collectively. That’s the biggest challenge for them. It surprises me to hear that there weren’t too many Welsh journalists at the Springbok press conference earlier this week. The Springboks are always welcome in Wales. We love rugby and pride ourselves on playing against the best teams. South Africa are two-time World Cup-winners and have been, and still are, an incredible rugby nation. They are renowned for their physicality, their history within the game and how good they have been. For me, the allure of the Springboks is still there. It has taken a slight battering due to some of the recent results and they probably don’t have the same aura around them that they used to have when you look back at the period from 2007 to 2009. However, there are unique challenges in SA rugby. It’s a tough one because it’s not all based on rugby in South Africa - politics is also involved. The black South African population is huge and you want black kids to grow up and play rugby. Children need role models that they can relate to and that’s not going to happen unless you put more black players in the Bok team. In the short term, I think they are going to take a hit, but rugby is about participation isn’t it? I can certainly see the reason why SA Rugby is driving their transformation objectives (50% black player representation by 2019) because they are looking for the next generation of rugby players and to make South African rugby thrive and be self-sustainable.
Sport24 asked: Are Allister Coetzee and Warren Gatland still the right coaches?
Tom Shanklin: I’m not sure on current Springbok coach, Coetzee. The bottom line is that the results haven’t been great and, just like in the business world, if you are not performing and you are the captain of the ship, then there should be consequences. (Under Coetzee’s guidance, the Boks have won 11 of 24 Tests - a 46% win-ratio - and a victory in Cardiff on Saturday will edge that percentage up to only 48%, while a defeat or draw would see it fall to 44%). As far as Gatland goes, I believe he is the best man for the job at the moment. There are not many better CVs than Gatland’s and he has earned the right to stay in Wales until he decides to seek out a fresh challenge. Gatland receives plenty of criticism over the way Wales play and in terms of their results. However, he has been by far the most successful Welsh coach we have ever had. Potentially, I would like to see Gatland add to his coaching set-up. I’d like more attack-minded coaches to come into the national team fold, but at the moment we’ve got Rob Howley who serves as attack coach. I’m not saying get rid of Howley whatsoever, he’s vitally important to the way Wales play and the pattern they employ, but we haven’t really added to the coaching team since Gatland was appointed in 2007. A change of voice would be good, but the problem is who do you get in? There are many attack-minded coaches out there, but they are tied to their current clubs. And I don’t think anyone is going to want to join the coaching set-up because, if Gatland calls it a day, that will spell the end of his backroom staff as well.
Sport24 asked: What are your impressions of the inaugural PRO14 campaign?
Tom Shanklin: Creating the PRO14 was a positive step, but it’s still a learning process. I think it’s good that they are trying to revamp the league. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but it won’t be through a lack of trying. The expansion of the competition has brought more revenue to the game and it has equated to an extra half a million pounds for the Welsh region. It’s give them more of a project to look at players, and we are slowly but surely seeing the South African teams play better rugby - the first couple of games weren’t the greatest, but now they seem to be doing well - especially the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs. However, at some point it would be nice to see an international league set up because I’m not sure that the current PR014 is that strong as a competition. There is talk of American and German teams joining the competition in the future and, as soon as you get teams from other countries coming in, TV rights increase and more money is ploughed into the game. And when you work with bigger budgets, you can purchase better players.
Sport24 asked: Your thoughts ahead of the 33rd Test between the two sides?
Tom Shanklin: I foresee the game being won or lost at the breakdown, like most matches are these days. South Africa possess a big pack of forwards and will look to bully Wales at the breakdown, in the collisions and during set-play. Wales boast a mobile pack, but it’s certainly not the biggest. The question is whether they can stop the hulking South African ball-carriers from gaining traction. If the home side can keep the Bok bruisers at bay, then they have a good chance because we boast gifted players in the Welsh backline. We saw glimpses of their potential against New Zealand last weekend, but didn’t see enough of it to be fair. Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams, two of our best players, especially on attack, are both out injured and all the line breaks supposedly come from those two. The Welsh backline is one that hasn’t played together for too long, but I believe they will ask questions of South Africa’s defence. Furthermore, if Wales can stop South Africa’s big pack, limit their scrum dominance, kill their line-out drives at source and stop their pick-and-goes, Wales are in this game. South Africa will aim to employ their physical dominance in order to overpower Wales. Whereas, I suspect that Wales will want to have the ball in play, keep the tempo high and play with width and pace. We are set to see two teams with different styles of play at the Principality Stadium.
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