Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The drubbings being experienced by supposed South African “major-union” teams in Super Rugby of late will be doing little to assist the looming selection quandaries for Springbok coach Allister Coetzee.
It used to be said that a “strong Bulls and/or Western Province” translated into a healthy national side.
Of course the geographical balance of power has shifted quite markedly at times in our country over the past few years (the Lions have every right to feel best of the domestic bunch right now) but the Bulls’ 10-try shellacking from the Crusaders at once-fortress Loftus and the Stormers’ three-week woes in New Zealand nevertheless represent further stinging blows to collective SA rugby pride.
During the SuperSport studio post-mortem of the Pretoria debacle on Saturday, former Bok coach Nick Mallett made the not unreasonable point that “50-point hammerings” being suffered by Stormers and Bulls players with any Test aspirations in 2017 hardly amount to the desirable psychological preparation for the international season – the popular cricket saying “mental scarring” potentially comes into play.
That new Test campaign is now fewer than five weeks away, when the Boks open their account in the first of three Tests against France in Pretoria on June 10.
Forthright Mallett went further by suggesting that perhaps an increased onus on Lions players for the Springbok mix was the most sensible recipe, given the reasonably grim circumstances, for the Test cause at present.
After all, they are consistently winning matches, which is more than most compatriot outfits can say, and often enough doing so by convincing margins and with pleasing enterprise and tactical acumen; the 2016 Super Rugby runners-up remain very strongly in the picture for top-placed finish overall after ordinary season.
You wouldn’t have heard too many dissenting mutterings from Johannesburg and environs over Mallett’s proposal, that’s for sure.
It will be appropriate in Super Rugby form terms - the competition is obviously meant to be a good barometer - for the Bok side to be at least reasonably well-stocked with players from the Lions.
Just what “well-stocked” really means, remains a subjective question, of course... it is naturally not so simple as to just pick Lions en masse and assume all will suddenly click into place for the currently seventh-ranked Springboks.
The more Lions players he goes for, the easier it will be for Coetzee to establish some sort of familiarity and continuity, especially if some of the players given the nod from that franchise happen to be chosen in positional combinations alongside Super Rugby colleagues.
A difficulty, however, is that last season we were roughly in the same boat at this stage of Super Rugby, with the Lions looking sturdiest and best-balanced SA side... and the then-rookie national coach did, in fairness, select a fair sprinkling of Lions for the initial tasks against Ireland.
In his maiden match-day squad at Newlands (a 26-20 reverse which seemed to set a grim tone for the season), were Faf de Klerk, Lionel Mapoe, Julian Redelinghuys, Warren Whiteley and Elton Jantjies.
By the time the Bok year ended against Wales in Cardiff (another loss, 27-13), the Lions representation, either as starters or substitutes, had grown to eight: Whiteley, De Klerk, Jantjies, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Combrinck, Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert and Mapoe.
But it is probably not being too wide of the mark to suggest that the various Lions representatives - give Coetzee his due, he DID reward many of their standouts with caps - generally laboured as much as any others to make a routinely good impression at the higher level during 2016.
The Boks never looked like emulating - not effectively, if they were even intending to - the playing style of the Lions and it seemed to blunt the best qualities of several Lions players, so much more used to the broad, “family” vibe and regular organisational integrity present in their franchise camp under coach Johan Ackermann.
Let’s also consider this much: someone like enigmatic but highly talented flyhalf Jantjies has never seemed to prosper or look at ease anywhere else within a South African context but at Ellis Park; he has too often flattered to deceive for the Boks in 11 appearances so far, whilst he also had a notably unhappy single year on the Stormers’ books in 2013.
Ackermann, of course, has no direct involvement in the senior Bok cause, although he will continue in his role as SA ‘A’ coach this year against the French Barbarians in June, and another key figure in the Johannesburg set-up, Warren Whiteley as captain, has not (yet, anyway) been the Test skipper.
It would also be controversial and unpopular in other parts of the country if a much more sweeping, “lock, stock and barrel” approach was taken by Coetzee this year in terms of Lions picks.
After all, if certain other teams are struggling, does it suddenly, automatically make a few highly-regarded individuals surplus to Test requirements? That would be naïve, wouldn’t it?
Do you suddenly jettison the vast experience and stability of someone like 87-cap Sharks loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira? Or give a wide berth to Eben Etzebeth, the lock enforcer most international coaches - believe me on this - would so gratefully deploy?
Then what about the massively proven overseas-based players, many of them far more used to winning than losing in a Bok shirt, whom many observers feel should remain on the Test radar? Names that spring to mind include Duane Vermeulen and Bismarck du Plessis, among several others.
So the proportion of Lions players he should place confidence in remains a real head-scratcher for Coetzee.
At the same time, Mallett’s views on the subject hardly lack validity: a great many of the already-recognised “Lions Boks” are, indeed, producing rugby of an indisputably high standard right now.
You can add a few extra ones to the category in 2017: I would suggest all of scrumhalf Ross Cronje, fullback Andries Coetzee, wing Courtnall Skosan, lock Andries Ferreira, front-ranker Jacques van Rooyen and blindside flank Ruan Ackermann have become genuine green-and-gold “possibles”.
Over to you to work out this particular little poser, Allister... it’s your job, after all.
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