David Moseley

Captaincy concern for Boks?

2012-10-08 12:42
Editor of ArenaSport, David Moseley (File)
Replacing a talismanic leader like John Smit will be no easy task for Springbok management in the years (months, perhaps?) to come. Right now centre Jean de Villiers is doing a fine job with his losing speeches and applauding of the crowd for their fervent support. But the 31-year-old is unlikely to make another Rugby World Cup. Who, then, to lead the Boks into the future?

John Smit left some mighty captaincy boots to fill. Say what you like about his playing ability towards the end of his career, but there’s no denying that the man was the greatest Springbok captain of all time, a leader whose talents may only be fully appreciated as time goes by.

Diplomatic, sincere, honest and blessed with the uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time, it’s no stretch to say that Smit’s impressive leadership skills helped to prolong his international career by at least three seasons.

But now the Springboks’ find themselves in something of a leadership lull. A new coach has rolled into town and with him a considerable pool of exciting, youthful talent.

Titans like Smit, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith have either retired, moved away or been sidelined by injury. Heyneke Meyer’s rebuilding task was never going to be easy, but losing such an influential skipper along with one or two well-travelled Boks who will eventually be looked back on as legends of the game has only added to the pressure.

Their exits or unavailability have not only necessitated fielding inexperienced Springbok teams this season, but also created an international-level leadership vacuum in the squad. Jean de Villiers, undoubtedly one of the finest centres to grace the Green and Gold, is currently filling the gap. Whether he’s doing it well or not depends on your acceptance levels of this current Bok team as a work in progress.

Like Meyer, De Villiers’ hasn’t been helped by the fact that almost all the key men in a Springbok jersey have gone AWOL in one form or another this season. His long-time midfield partner Jaque Fourie is currently big in Japan, while Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Bismarck du Plessis are all sidelined with injuries. JP Pietersen, the standout South African backline player of the year before the Test season began, would also have taken some of the heat off De Villiers had he been fit for the Rugby Championship.

Smith and Burger are likely to return to Springbok action, but like De Villiers, unlikely to make the next Rugby World Cup (taking their ages and their injury “proneness” into account). Burger was probably first choice captain before De Villiers anyway, but recent grumbles about his fitness (will he actually be able to make another comeback?) could preclude him from any long-term captaincy responsibilities.

Jean, good for now, but then?

This is not to say that Jean de Villiers has done a bad job in 2012. In fact, given the casualty list, the rebuilding phase, the new coach and the dominance of New Zealand, the current skipper has done a damn fine job.

South Africa won a Test series against England this year, beat Australia (at the time ranked number two in the world) and performed as you would expect in the Rugby Championship – flattering to deceive, yet failing to deliver mainly through impatience and inexperience. The only thing that counts against De Villiers would be his sub-par performances at outside centre, a position the skipper had no right appearing in anyway. Number 12 is his game, and that’s where he should have been all year long.

While we shouldn’t be planning in four year cycles (it gets increasingly frustrating when players and coaches talk only of planning towards the World Cup), we should at least be looking at leadership options for the day De Villiers’ calls it quits. Remember too that he’s also been prone to untimely and lengthy injuries, so it’s not such a bad idea lining up the potential captains now.

But that’s the question. Who do the Boks turn to? Do they use stop-gap leadership, which De Villiers’ surely is, or look properly to the future and hand the reins to some young buck like Francois Louw (who arrived at Bath last year and was promptly handed the Premiership club’s captain’s armband)?

Plan for the man

It’s a question you hope the Bok brains trust is considering because at present the on-field leadership is not quite as certain and assured as it should be. That being said, what options does Meyer have?

Burger, Smith and Bismarck must all be candidates, yet the first two are long-term injury lay-offs, while Bismarck might be considered too combustible for captaincy. If you exclude those fit, experienced Springboks who have never been spoken of as captaincy material – Beast, Jannie du Plessis, Bryan Habana, Ruan Pienaar – then you’re only left with Jean de Villiers and Francois Louw as ideal candidates. But then again, even the ever-improving Louw was not a first-choice call-up to the Springbok squad this year.

Laying out all the cards on the table shows what a tricky job it is to pick your leading man with a winning plan. That’s why the Boks need to think about it now, and not the day that Jean de Villiers’ decides he’s given one round of applause too many to long-suffering Bok fans in silenced stadiums.

Pushed to make a call, because everyone hates a fence-sitter, Francois Louw should be the man to take the Springboks forward. He has the game, the talent to be considered a first-choice starter when fit, and youth on his side. He’s also on the cusp of a new Bok era, not a hangover of some glory days gone by. It may be considered a bold move, but then maybe it’s time the Boks started making some of those.

David Moseley is a former Features Editor of Sports Illustrated and current editor of sports magazine website ArenaSport. Click HERE to follow ArenaSport on Twitter.

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