Cape Town – This has been a “good” year, for want of a
better expression, for those who passionately advocate the Springbok squad only
being chosen henceforth from South African-based players.
Surprisingly few of the more cash-flush characters
contracted exclusively to clubs north of the equator have provided genuine
gusto to the embattled Bok cause in what has been an annus horribilis for the reasonably newly-installed Allister
I have traditionally tended to be among the alternative lobby
extremely reluctant, considering the ever-swelling pool of quality SA players plying
their trade in Europe – or those in Japan who choose not to return here for the
domestic season -- to envisage a Bok side totally stripped of overseas stars.
Bear in mind that South African players who go abroad lock,
stock and barrel are no longer limited, as was much more common in the past, to
long-in-the-tooth ones seeking a late-career “cash surge” in foreign currency
before hanging up their boots.
The fact that mid- or even some early-career players are now
abandoning the local fold entirely is what makes the debate a particularly
complex, hazardous one.
There is a sobering tally of South African players, either
proven internationals already or deemed strong potential candidates at a future
point, now resident in northern climes.
Can we really afford to render permanently unavailable for
selection, fullstop, already stalwarts to varying degrees of Test rugby like
Duane Vermeulen, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Willie le Roux, Francois Louw,
JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis, Johan Goosen, Marcel van der Merwe, Marcell
Coetzee, Frans Steyn, Flip van der Merwe and more?
All of them are arguably good enough to still be considered
“possibles” for Bok squads leading up to and including the next World Cup in
2019, even if a few would be pushing the boundaries of their careers age-wise.
I am still unapologetically partial, for example, to the
strengths offered by the combative, 32-year-old hooker Du Plessis, currently on
the injured list at Montpellier but a provider of real grunt and massively
under-appreciated in the fetching department where the 2016 Boks have come a
quite regular cropper.
Class is permanent, and if he happened to be part of the RWC
2019 mix in Japan, he wouldn’t be the first gnarly 35-year-old in his position
still active, and quite likely effective.
Similarly it would be a tragedy if someone of Vermeulen’s
talent, muscle and general aura was suddenly deemed surplus to Test rugby
requirements after a criminal, mere 37 caps for his country.
That said, it has to be acknowledged that Vermeulen forms
part of an overseas-based group of players who – although there are various
mitigating reasons in some case -- haven’t offered nearly the sort of impact for
the Boks expected of them in 2016.
Of course the big loose forward, who offers options both at
No 8 and blindside flank, featured only in part of the Ireland series in June,
before injury and then his own-judged lack of suitable conditioning for the demands
of top-level rugby saw his Test season hugely cut short.
But he looked surprisingly off the pace, nevertheless, when
we did see him, and the same has generally applied for the most part to other
foreign-based household names like Louw, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen and even
Kitshoff, who has offered decreasing zest off the bench after a seriously promising
baptism a few months back.
I have long been a disciple of the game-breaking (when on
song) Pietersen, but he has rather under-whelmed in recent times, despite
hardly being all washed up as a 30-year-old.
The former Sharks favourite was especially poor against
England at Twickenham, his handling gaffe being largely responsible for a
tide-turning try to the hosts after the Boks had been scrapping pretty decently.
Even the much-decorated, eternally big-hearted Habana looks
worryingly as though he is finally slipping from a once consistently glorious
It’s been a forgettable year collectively for the Boks,
let’s not forget that, but the fact that the overseas-based players – whose
presence could be deemed something of a luxury – have struggled to properly
assert themselves does provide a certain manna to those who believe we should
focus exclusively on those who remain loyal, warts and all, to the home set-up.
There can be little doubt that it is more difficult to
create a common template in playing style, conditioning and other respects –
issues reportedly tackled at some length at the much-publicised recent “indaba”
– when Bok players are drawn from far and wide, and arrive for camp in considerably
varying levels of mental and physical readiness and match sharpness.
Considering the financial and other vulnerability
increasingly apparent in the SA-based Super Rugby and Currie Cup arenas,
stopping altogether the leakage of talent to foreign climes is probably a
But the exodus might, crucially, slow down to a meaningful
extent if SARU did ever decide to take the New Zealand route and signal their
intention to pick for the Springboks only men constantly familiar with the
proverbial braaivleis and sunny skies.
During the course of this year, I did get a first-time
impression, personally, that more than a few overseas players had somehow lost
a tad too much of their once quintessentially South African gees, fattened as they are by the more
profitable merits of chillier landscapes.
I wouldn’t say I am a full-blown convert yet to an “all
SA-based players” policy for the Springboks.
But I am just beginning to come around to its merits that
little bit more …
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