2016: Little value from overseas Boks

2016-11-17 12:45
Bismarck du Plessis (Getty)

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 Coetzee regime.

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 plateau.

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 pipedream.

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 …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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