- Former Springbok inside centre Pieter Muller, who played 33 Tests for his country, talks about how the midfield partnership of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am surprised him and explains why Andre Snyman was his favourite Test centre partner.
- The ex-Cheetahs and Sharks midfielder unpacks the difficult decision to axe the Cheetahs from an expanded PRO16 competition and what the future holds for them.
- He also looks ahead to the Green v Gold trial match at Newlands on Saturday and how it’s an ideal opportunity for young players to stake their claim for Test selection.
Sport24 asked: Born in Bloemfontein, where do you now call home?
Pieter Muller: I have been living in Stellenbosch for a while, but I’m not yet a converted Stormers fan. I think you have to do the 10-year cycle before you can call yourself a true Capetonian. The number one South African team for me is the Sharks, but the Cheetahs are a very close second and close to my heart. It’s sad to see that the Cheetahs have been side-lined from an expanded PRO16 competition. They are one of the unions that have been strong in terms of producing players and winning local competitions. The Cheetahs deserve a fair chance, but we can’t ignore the fact that Saru is looking at the situation from a financial point of view as well and accommodating the top teams. It’s a difficult task trying to accommodate everyone especially in light of Covid-19. However, there needs to be a place for the Cheetahs as they are a very important rugby factory for the rest of South Africa. I believe SA rugby needs the Cheetahs franchise because they can still be strong enough. They competed fairy well in the PRO14 and I think we need to find a place for them.
Sport24 asked: Has Super Rugby run its course in its current guise?
Pieter Muller: I think we need something fresh. Super Rugby has reached a point where the organisers either have to make it more exciting or go in a different direction. Saru have decided to gain northern exposure. It will be good to see what the top four South African teams can offer in Europe and there is a bigger audience coupled with an easier travel schedule. However, to still have the Rugby Championship continue is important as it’s a great championship. The Springboks need to play against New Zealand, Australia and Argentina as well. In terms of playing in the Rugby Championship this season it comes back to Saru, with financial issues at play. The South African public are hungry for rugby and the Springboks have been lying dormant for the last few months. After the excitement of the World Cup, we need to build it up again. South Africa are the world champions and we want to see the Springboks in action. I believe we need that proper competition against the Sanzaar nations. It will be a tough championship this term and we will see which team can last over eight weeks. The All Blacks aren’t easy to beat and will come back hard because they have a point to prove. The All Blacks can adapt to any environment but it does somewhat level the playing field by facing them in back-to-back Tests in Australia rather than New Zealand. The Boks will look to lay down a marker and prove that they are the best.
Sport24 asked: Your take ahead of the Springbok Showdown?
Pieter Muller: This Saturday’s game will be great as we will get to see some future stars. For the fans, I think the concept is awesome to see the current stalwarts along with the future stars. It’s about brushing off the cobwebs and getting the guys to play competitive rugby again. The Gold and Green teams are quite well-balanced and there isn’t much to choose between the two sides. I think it depends on the youngsters on either side and who is going to put their hand up to be a potential Bok candidate. A South African-based team will always prove strong, but the question we have been asking for years is how would a foreign-based South African team fair against a locally-based one? It’s nice knowing we have a second team overseas and can call on those players whenever we need them. It would be a tight contest, but I believe we have to back our Boks back home… In terms of the centres, Francois Steyn and Wandisile Simelane are paired in the midfield for Green while Rikus Pretorius and Lukhanyo Am will turn out for Gold. It’s a nice blend of youth and experience. Munster-based Damian de Allende has done well, but we want the young centres pushing for places otherwise as a player you won’t be at your best. To be World champions you need to stay at your best with the youngsters pushing you from behind. In terms of the objectives from the respective coaches, they will want to see what shape the players are in and which of the youngsters will be able to take the step up to Test rugby. The national coaches know what they have got already in terms of personnel and it comes down casting the net wider and seeing which youngsters can come in if senior players suffer an injury or a loss of form.
Sport24 asked: What makes an effective centre partnership?
Pieter Muller: For the Springboks, Andre Snyman and I worked well together. As a combination you either click or you don’t. Myself and Andre gelled on a level where we understood each other and the same has happened with De Allende and Am. Before the World Cup I was a bit sceptical in terms of theirs being a good centre combination. However, they dealt really well during the tournament. They played so well together and combined offensively and defensively to devastating efffect. Am is a great player of-the-ball and reminds me of Danie Gerber in his heyday. The former finds himself in the right place at the right time and is precise with his offloading abilities. The De Allende-Am centre pairing is a good combination because there is brute strength coupled with skill. De Allende isn’t a one-trick pony and also possesses great offloading skills and can keep the ball alive. A No 12 has moved away from being a crash-baller and the modern inside centre is more of a game-maker. He needs to serve as a second 10 and be able to make decisions. However, he still needs to be strong defensively and get over the gain-line. In terms of Am, who will captain the gold team, his leaderships skills stand out. He is very well-spoken and leads by example.
Sport24 asked: How have you seen Rassie Erasmus evolve?
Pieter Muller: Rassie was already analysing the game and the opposition during his playing days. He had that knack from an early age. He showed when he coached the Cheetahs that he was a step ahead and his working knowledge was awesome. In terms of all the planning he did ahead of the 2019 World Cup, I don’t think we were able to understand it from the outside. He planned everything to a tee and then the plan took care of itself with the players backing him 100%. He became that player-coach who had that relationship with all the players. Taking his health issues into account, it makes what Rassie has achieved with the Springboks even more impressive. Rassie is a fighter and he knew he would get out of it and he did. He did what was best for the team and at the end of the day that is the most important thing. I haven’t socialised with Rassie in the last year and a half but talking from our rugby days, he can switch off. He is open to having a bit of fun and a couple of beers. However, as a World Cup-winning coach he has to be very selective when it comes to be around certain places. I don’t think he would want to be seen in public as he would be swamped. As a public figure, you can get a bit isolated in a sense of where you are and what you can do. Rassie is now the full-time director of rugby role, but he will always be involved with the Boks. Jacques Nienaber has been with Rassie for many years and will continue that way of thinking and pattern of play. The Boks want to continue to build and leave a legacy.
Sport24 asked: Your memories of facing the All Blacks?
Pieter Muller: My first and last Test matches were against New Zealand. It was pretty special and as Springbok you want to start your first game against the All Blacks. Playing against the All Blacks was the ultimate and growing up it was what us as young South African kids wanted to do. In terms of my last Test, it was the third-fourth place play-off at the 1999 World Cup. Both us and the All Blacks could potentially have been in the final. It was a special way to end off my international career and play against Jonah Lomu for the last time. I tried my hardest to knock him back, but it didn’t work! I think James Small was more effective in 1995 in terms of man-marking Lomu. It’s hard to believe that James has been gone for over a year. We played together for SA Schools and he was a special player. Off-field, he was high maintenance, but on-field he was a high velocity player. You need players like him in a team as it makes a complete side. I think for the era in which he played he was misunderstood. James was like the Dennis Rodman of rugby and he had his own mission. If you let him go you would get the best out of him, but if you caged him you ended up cramping his style. In the early 90s, rugby was still amateur and certain coaches didn’t know how to react to a player like James. I think it was quite difficult for James to fully express himself. He was the type of individual you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of and he could get angry quite quickly but, after he blew off some steam, he would get over it.
Sport24 asked: Is development working within SA rugby?
Pieter Muller: I was involved with the SA Rugby Legends Association from 2008 to 2018. We started the Vuka rugby programme and in 2014 we had a discussion with Saru to do a national rollout of a development programme that we were doing in the Cape at around 120 schools. We developed a whole strategy for them to get non-traditional rugby schools to play the game again. When I left, we were looking at 25 000 to 30 000 kids playing Vuka rugby on a weekly basis... In terms of transformation, in 1994 I remember saying that we would have to wait for almost two generations to pass before we could reap the rewards. Saru made a lot of mistakes along the way, but they have learned as they have gone on. Looking at the current Springbok team and the players coming through at the different levels, Saru are hitting their targets and we are seeing natural talent emerging from the system. Vuka, along with other development programmes, are bearing fruits. When it came to the Springbok World Cup side, there wasn’t a better team that could have been selected.