Bok bases beautifully covered
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - While selectors will never, ever please all of the people all of the time, a hallmark of the Springboks’ RWC 2011 squad is that it leaves precious little room for anyone to get genuinely hot under the collar over.
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Yes, the families, friends and fans of customers like Ashley Johnson, Flip van der Merwe and Lwazi Mvovo - not to mention those players themselves, naturally - will be desperately disappointed that they failed to make the cut, even if none of them had “must-pick” especially compellingly emblazoned across their foreheads anyway.
For the most part, the 30-strong party announced in Johannesburg on Tuesday night boasts impressive hallmarks ... or to put it a slightly less gung-ho way in the present climate, looks just about as well-equipped as it could be for both the challenge ahead and the clearly-intended game plan to be embraced.
If there are relatively minor surprises, they come in the form of Francois Louw and Odwa Ndungane, who weren’t being talked up by many scribes until very recently (in the case of the latter, you could say not at all).
But even the Sharks wing workhorse – as opposed to recognised speedster, it is true – can’t really be branded a poor pick, especially bearing in mind that he is most likely to fall into a “back-up” category in New Zealand.
The 30-year-old knows the system, as they say, and arguably fits the Bok template against top-tier foes at the tournament pretty well: the Boks aren’t going to suddenly stun the planet with a frenzy of expansive zest, and will clearly focus much energy on “stopping the opposition from playing”, as it were.
So solid positional acumen and commitment in the tackle will be valued commodities, and Ndungane can certainly help out there if required; the more mercurial Mvovo’s World Cup time, hopefully, will come four years yonder.
I believe the selection of Louw, who had seemingly drifted off virtually unnoticed to a new career with Bath after the Super Rugby season with the Stormers, is not far short of inspired.
With Heinrich Brüssow having demonstrated anew the rich value of the specialist fetcher, someone with known pedigree in that department who could step into his shoes swiftly in the event of mishap befalling the Free Stater at the World Cup was always going to be a wise addition.
South Africa have tried Deon Stegmann in this capacity without any profound impact at all: Louw, who is also a considerably more powerful ball-carrier, has previously shown that he can mix it with the very best as a “stealer”.
Two occasions come quickly to mind, and both as recently as 2010: first when he gave Richie McCaw’s Crusaders a taste of their own medicine by gloriously bossing the deck in a rare 42-14 hammering for them at Newlands, and then in a thunderous, man-of-the-match Test showing against France at the same venue - one of the most vibrant victories of the Peter de Villiers tenure thus far as head coach.
The Springboks have twigged at a great time that it is good to get a classy player like Louw back aboard the wagon.
I had fancied beforehand like some others that the Boks, ever conscious of wanting to throw a kitchen sink at forward, would opt for a 17-13 pack/backline split; instead they went 16-14, but again there is no special cause to quibble.
From positions 15 to one, after all, there does appear to be a broad range of “cover”, with player versatility a sound feature.
For instance, South Africa could start many a World Cup match feeling fairly confident that the flyhalf channel would not be grossly let down by any of the following available soldiers: Morné Steyn, Butch James, Pat Lambie, Frans Steyn or Ruan Pienaar.
Most of the other backline positions also have at least five credible customers reassuringly at hand, with only outside centre - Jaque Fourie and Juan de Jongh arguably the only two realistic possibilities - slightly thin on resources if an injury or illness plague were to strike.
Here’s something else to chew on: with so much attention given to the heavy reliance on the been-there-done-that troopers of 2007, there’s been a perception, by extension, that the RWC 2011 squad will look particularly long in the tooth.
Yet the final product isn’t glaringly so in calendar terms. Only six of the group are over the age of 30 and three of them (James, Danie Rossouw and Johann Muller) seem unlikely starters at this stage for the opening match against Wales. And that’s even before you begin to speculate on the exact role the 33-year-old travelling captain, John Smit, may play for that encounter!
When England won the last World Cup to be staged in Australasia, in 2003, there were more creaking bones than these at the core of things, and that very nation has again summoned a certain Simon Shaw to the 2011 fray - the gnarly lock will turn 38, no less, on September 1.
You could almost say he makes Victor Matfield look like a pup in a box.
South Africa have overwhelmingly picked the correct sort of personnel for the obvious course, rightly or wrongly, that they plan to pursue in September and October.
I’m happier than I thought I’d be with the 30.