Bok tour a test of depth
Bok coach Peter de Villiers (File)
Johannesburg - The parting words of British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan should serve as an additional motivation for the Springbok selectors as they prepare to name their squad of 37 for the end of year tour.
Although beaten 2-1 in the three match series, one of McGeechan's parting shots before he left was that South Africa did not possess the rugby depth he thought it did before his team arrived on these shores. This was emphasised, he felt, by the result of the last Test, where the Boks made several changes and were hammered 28-9, but it was also shown in the tour matches against the Lions.
Some might just write it off as the ranting of a bitter loser, but it could well be that McGeechan was not far wrong. After all, although SA Rugby have succeeded in keeping most of the Springboks who won the 2007 World Cup loyal to the national cause, the provinces have been haemorrhaging talent from the next level down for several years now.
And this is something the Springbok brains trust must surely be mindful of as they look ahead to the challenges of the future. While it has been a year of great success for the Springboks, with the immediate post 2007 World Cup objective of beating the British and Irish Lions now behind them, and it is time to start looking towards the next edition of world rugby’s showpiece event in 2011.
If all the Bok players who starred this year remain fit and sharp, then South African rugby looks well served for the tournament. The current Bok team, which went on from the success against the Lions to win the country her third Tri-Nations trophy, is brimful of world class players.
But while there are many experts who reckon this side, which has remained virtually unchanged since the World Cup, is only just beginning, the reality is that the big strength of the Boks, which is their experience, could also become a liability between now and 2011.
There are nine current Boks who boast 50 caps or more at the highest level. If they are all still in the mix in 2011, it would mean the Boks start the World Cup with nine players who have played 70 Tests or more. Is that not perhaps too many?
Regardless of how you answer that question, it is necessary that South Africa’s rugby depth gets properly tested, and that hasn’t happened for a long time now. With matches against English club sides Leicester Tigers and Saracens on their schedule, this will be the first extended squad selected for several years, and certainly the first in at least five that will embark on a tour which includes so-called midweek matches.
On last year’s tour of Britain the playing team, except when there were injuries, remained unchanged for all the Test matches, and the year before that there was the World Cup. New Bok coach Peter de Villiers did blood a few new players early in his tenure, but since then it has been mainly the old, experienced hands, with the addition of newcomers such as Morne Steyn and Heinrich Brussow, who have been keeping the ship going.
The ABSA Currie Cup season that will be completed on Saturday with the final at Loftus between the Blue Bulls and the Free State Cheetahs has, as always, unearthed a couple of apparent gems. One of those is Juan de Jongh, the young Western Province centre who must surely come strongly into the reckoning, while the Cheetahs front-row also deserves recognition as a collective, at least in the group that will be playing the fixtures against club sides.
But how strong is South African rugby really? The truth is, we don’t really know, for as former Bok coach Nick Mallett once noted, you cannot rave about your strength when you are only playing among yourselves.
The Bulls are Super 14 champions, but how good are the rest? The Sharks never made the Super 14 semi-finals this year, and none of the other teams came close. The other Currie Cup finalists, the Cheetahs, provided the bulk of the players that made up the side that came last.
Certainly the provincial games played on the Lions tour did not send out a resounding message about the quality of South Africa’s rugby depth, and in some positions, such as flyhalf, there is a shortage that verges on critical.
So back to McGeechan - we will have a much better idea of the accuracy of his assessment after the tour, which starts as early as next week. The 37-man Bok squad - the players not playing in the Tests will not receive blazers - will be named after the Currie Cup final.