Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok MARCO WENTZEL talks about his preferred lock pairing for the national side, the steroid culture within South African rugby and serving Lance Armstrong lamb chops.
Sport24 asked: How does SA Rugby build on the Springboks’ World Cup win?
Marco Wentzel: I believe we need to strengthen our Super Rugby squads. The answer might be fewer players on bigger contracts. And in terms of Springbok rugby, it’s probably the same thing and Rassie Erasmus has alluded to that. It’s about fewer players on bigger contracts and trying to keep the core you have, which is tough because you then lose the younger guys. The sad thing is if a 23-year-old plays four Tests and then goes overseas. The question is, how do you keep that player? A smaller, more elite squad would make sense and the nice thing is that Rassie is moving into the role of director of rugby on a full-time basis, which will be his main focus. Jacques Nienaber would offer great continuity if appointed as head coach and half the World Cup-winning squad will still be there for many years. Knowing Rassie, having played with him at the Cheetahs, he always has a plan and will do all he can to retain players. It’s exciting to see what’s going to happen and the next two years are going to be interesting. Whether they are world champions or not, the Springboks have always got a target on their back. The next objective will be the 2021 British & Irish Lions series and Rassie will put his squad together now and he won’t lose too many players. Thereafter, a few more players will call time on their Springbok careers. The British & Irish Lions series is very special for the players because it only comes around every 12 years, so if you don’t time it right from an international perspective you are not going to play them. In 2009, I played for the Southern Kings against the British & Irish Lions and then to play for the Barbarians against the Lions in Hong Kong was amazing.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Heyneke Meyer’s Stade Francais exit?
Marco Wentzel: I think Heyneke is a brilliant coach and he generally has the knack of getting the best out of players. I love Heyneke and have to thank him for giving me a contract out of school otherwise I don’t think I would have played rugby and seen the world. He understands how the Afrikaans South African guys tick but to get the best out of the English and French, who are a different breed, is very difficult. I think player power has always been there (in the game) and as a coach you have either got the players on board or you don’t in any team sport. As a South African coach in France the language barrier is difficult and you need to get strong individuals on your side. To immediately go into the fray as head coach in a foreign country is challenging and understanding the culture is cortical. I think Heyneke was fine in the UK because Leicester was an English Bulls. He left for personal reasons (owing to his wife’s illness) and they loved him there but France was tough.
Sport24 asked: Do you agree that there is a steroid culture within our game?
Marco Wentzel: The unfortunate fact is that if we look at the last few years in terms of the amount of rugby players caught doping, critics have a point. In recent times we have had the cases of Gerbrandt Grobler, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Aphiwe Dyantyi and way back we had the likes of Johan Ackermann. It’s an issue and I don’t think those who raise the issue are factually incorrect. SARU and the clubs try their best to educate players from schoolboy level and they conduct all the tests but what more can you do? From what one hears the steroid use at schoolboy level is quite rife but is it because we are so competitive and there are so many players? It might spring from that because rugby is such a big cultural phenomenon. It is up to the coaches and parents to police the use of steroids but kids are kids. In today’s age you can’t stop them and if they want something they’ll get it. The standard of our schoolboy rugby is unbelievable, it’s highly competitive and players are massive. I agree it should be more about the enjoyment factor than results at schoolboy level but how do you reverse the trend at this point? It’s easier said than done - you can’t reverse what is happening now and say ahead of the Paarl Boys’ High v Paarl Gimnasium derby, “Boys, take it easy.”
Sport24 asked: Your view on Beast Mtawarira’s exit and Jannie du Plessis’ return?
Marco Wentzel: I am actually surprised that Beast called time on his Test career and opted not to stick around for the British & Irish Lions series. However, having played with him at the Sharks I know that he is a very level-headed guy. He made the decision based on the fact that he knew where his body is at and what he wanted to do. You have to respect him because he wouldn’t have taken the decision lightly. There are rumours he wants to go and play overseas and I think it would be great for him and his family. There is no better way to experience another country than be living there. In terms of Jannie’s proposed return to South African rugby, the Lions would be getting a solid player. He doesn’t make mistakes, gives you a right shoulder and that is what you want. He is an intelligent guy and for a squad to have him as a senior player is worth its weight in gold. He will change the pack and will set the standards when it comes to scrums, lineouts and work ethic. I think Jannie would be huge for the Lions and a great signing. He is meticulous when it comes to the art of scrummaging and he puts in the hours. In Jannie, the Lions will have a top player and mentor for their younger props. Playing-wise he will still be up there and do his job but I think we will see how the other props will develop owing to influence off the field. He is a qualified medical doctor but is also someone you want in coaching. I would hope he combines medicine with forward coaching when he retires, but Jannie is an all-or-nothing type of guy and doesn’t do anything half-heartedly.
Sport24 asked: How do you rate the Springboks’ strength in depth at lock?
Marco Wentzel: We are well waxed and can suffer an injury to one of our locks and still be fine. That strength in depth is amazing to have. A fit Lood de Jager with Eben Etzebeth alongside him would be my first-choice second row combination. The main thing is that Lood, as the No 5, calls the lineouts. In terms of Eben, who is the enforcer, I think he has done very well with the controversy hanging over his head. I feel very sorry him but he has done amazingly well because you can’t say off-field controversy won’t impact you as a player and person. RG Snyman is unbelievable off the bench and then the Springboks are blessed in the sense that Franco Mostert can cover flank and lock as can Pieter-Steph du Toit, who is essentially a lock. He has an amazing engine on him, is probably more athletic than Mostert and has done well to transition to No 7, which is a tough position and is cut out for guys who graft. To play lock for so long and then switch to flank is difficult especially at international level. However, he is quite settled now and has scooped all the major awards locally and abroad. He has had one helluva season and I always thought he would be something special. When I played with him at the Sharks, he was young and he has grown and become a leader now and one of the senior players. He has skippered the Springboks on one occasion and I definitely think he will captain the national team again in the future. Siya Kolisi is doing very well as the captain but it’s great to have backups like Du Toit and Handre Pollard, who will be there for the next few years.
Sport24 asked: Having played Premiership rugby your take on the Saracens saga?
Marco Wentzel: Saracens is a top club with an amazing culture but they got caught out, stuck up their hand and have said we have been doing it wrong. It’s interesting because as rival Premiership teams we always asked: How can Saracens afford all these players? Saracens will pay a big fine and have lost a lot of points but, having admitted to breaching the salary cap rules the previous years, why are they not stripped of their titles? It’s great to have marquee players on your books but there needs to be a bottom-tier and you have to know what the salary cap is for the squad. Their priority will be to stay up in the Gallagher Premiership and I think they will be fine and get through it by resting key personnel during European Cup competitions. The bottom line is that you have to stay up. Anything can happen when it comes to relegation and you can lose a host of high-profile players.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests, who would you opt to invite around?
Marco Wentzel: I would invite Conor “The Notorious” McGregor. He is flamboyant and has changed the face of the sport. Tiger Woods has also had a life and lived a bit and my third guest would be Lance Armstrong. In sport, I think it’s the characters that make it and that’s why we watch. Everyone was doping and Armstrong was still the best. If we are going to say that not all the cyclists were doping we would be naïve. Steroid use in sport isn’t right but for sure it’s still going on in sport. Meanwhile, in terms of Woods winning the Masters this year and completing his comeback, it was great for sport. Combined with the mental stuff he was dealing with, he had his age and injuries to deal with, which made the achievement even more impressive. The question is: Why does Woods keep coming back when he doesn’t need the money? I believe it comes down to the fact that he has a different motivation and is a beast. Woods is coming back again and is a competitive monster. In terms of the menu, I would braai lamb chops and 90s rock would be the soundtrack for the evening.