Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Bok prop COBUS VISAGIE talks about Beast Mtawarira’s impending milestone, why lawmakers are ruining the game and the second Test in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Schalk Brits’ unexpected Springbok selection?
Cobus Visagie: His call-up is almost 10 years too late! However, it will be wonderful if Schalk can get a playing opportunity in the third and final Test. Schalk can add plenty of value to the team but, that said, Bongi Mbonambi played a very good game in the first Test and justified his selection. It would be a great waste for Schalk to retire without having added to his 10 Test caps for South Africa. (Brits has not been included in the match-day 23 for the second Test against England). I feel the Springboks need some more senior players to add to the transfer of knowledge and understanding. I hope Schalk’s inclusion isn’t just an exercise to extract information from him, as he played week-in and week-out in the Aviva Premiership against English opposition. It’s not so much the current Saracens players he played with up until last season, but more about the fact that he played with and was coached by current England forward coach Steve Borthwick. Brits was mentored by Borthwick from a lineout perspective for a very long time. Many of the methodologies have remained the same and there is a transfer in terms of methodology between Saracens and the English national team. Schalk understands the thinking of the England coaches having also worked with Eddie Jones and outgoing defence coach Paul Gustard, who will be sorely missed in the set-up.
Sport24 asked: Your take on the Bok tighthead options with Frans Malherbe starting?
Cobus Visagie: In South Africa there is plenty of talent among the players who pack down at tighthead. Wilco Louw started the first Test for South Africa, but I was quite surprised that he didn’t perform that well in the first half. Thomas du Toit did exceptionally well when he came on in the second stanza. Frans Malherbe has been handed a start for the second Test, but the bottom line is that he hasn’t played much rugby this season having been out injured. From a Springbok perspective, we are blessed to possess big units, who are able to get around the park as they have engines on them. They all boast the ability to play 60 to 80 minutes if and when required. Du Toit has been retained on the bench, which I believe is the correct call. I feel it would be premature for him to start a Test. However, he has definitely shown that he can operate at the highest level. I saw Gary Gold tweeted that Du Toit “has the ability to be one of the greatest Bok tightheads of all time”. The converted loosehead prop has the makings of a very good tighthead, but I think Gary’s assertion is a little premature. We must remember that just three months ago someone had Du Toit’s number in the scrums. I also feel there is place to consider Saracens-based Vincent Koch in the playing mix. In terms of who should be South Africa’s regular first-choice tighthead prop, where we stand right now, Malherbe is the most experienced player, with 17 Tests to his name, but the fact is that he hasn’t played that many matches since returning from injury. Trevor Nyakane has also been converted to tighthead prop and was set to start the first Test match before been ruled out with a rib injury. However, to be honest, I regard Trevor as a loosehead rather than a tighthead at international level.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Beast Mtawarira who’s set to play his 100th Test?
Cobus Visagie: Beast is well loved and boasts a big fan base. Over and above that, from a professional point of view, he has been one of the greatest ambassadors for South African rugby and is right up there with the recently-retired Bryan Habana. Beast’s professionalism is second to none and he deserves all the accolades that will come his way. He will become only the sixth player to represent the Springboks in 100 Tests and the first black African to do so. Reaching a century of Tests is a significant milestone. I only played 29 Tests for South Africa, but it’s a different era now. For me, the acid test of a great player is if you are able to hold your own in multiple combinations. It’s one thing to be great in one front row combination, but it’s another to be a mainstay in a team for a decade. Beast played a significant amount of Tests with the Du Plessis brothers – Bismarck and Jannie - and he has gone beyond one playing era. Beast is now doing well with Thomas du Toit at the Sharks and Springbok level as well. His adaptability and longevity says a lot about him as a player and a person. How I rated myself as a player was by being able to go from Western Province to the Stormers and Saracens to the Springboks and, whatever my situation was, continuing to perform. Beast has been able to do that, which is why he is on the verge of a special achievement. Beast still has a few good years left in him from a playing perspective. He is an impressive physical specimen and I can’t say that I would start Nyakane at loosehead ahead of him any time soon. The 32-year-old’s scrummaging, defence, fitness and game understanding still makes him a valuable commodity.
Sport24 asked: What will it take for the Springboks to become a powerhouse again?
Cobus Visagie: I believe we need South African coaches to have access to international coaching standards. South Africa should also focus on its playing strengths. For example, South Africa should boast a better lineout drive than they do at the moment owing to the size and strength of the players at their disposal. The plus point is that Rassie Erasmus is a traditionalist and feels very strongly about coaching the drive. However, why is someone like Rassie the Springbok coach? It’s because he spent 18 months in Ireland coaching Munster. We need more South African coaches to broaden their horizons and grow their intellectual capital in the northern hemisphere. The reason Ireland and Scotland have moved ahead so quickly and enjoyed strong Six Nations campaigns is because they boast New Zealand coaches. That is the bottom line. To get South African rugby back to the top again, I believe there needs to be a much greater emphasis on skills development rather than the size of young players at school level... It was disconcerting to see the Junior Springboks crash out of the under-20 World Championship at the semi-final stage. A significant amount of money was spent on their European tour and the team enjoyed plenty of time together. However, they could hardly beat Georgia and lost badly to France in their final group match. You have to ask yourself are the right people in charge of South African rugby? Meanwhile, the fiscal problems within South African rugby are not unique. There are similar problems in Australia, New Zealand and even the UK. The rugby business model is fundamentally broken. We need more people in management who can manage a product to the benefit of the financial sustainability of the game as well as for the enjoyment of the spectators. If people don’t enjoy watching the game then it means that the brand has been ruined. Agreeing to the game against Wales in Washington was a very poor decision from a Springbok brand perspective. It’s essentially a million dollar product managed by people who don’t have the expertise to successfully manage a brand in high-level professional sport.
Sport24 asked: What is your single biggest bugbear in terms of the oval game today?
Cobus Visagie: One of the most fundamental issues at the moment in rugby, which is ruining the game, is the way that the referees are managed. The damage both the lawmakers and the referees are doing to people’s understanding and enjoyment of the game is significant. It’s the single biggest bugbear of rugby players and coaches alike, and people walk away extremely frustrated from a game when there is lack of consistency in terms of decision-making. The incident in the first Test between New Zealand and France was a case in point. Neither Sam Cane nor Ofa Tu'ungafasi were sanctioned for the double-high tackle that sent Remy Grosso to hospital with a double skull fracture. (The Citing Commissioner considered Tu’ungafasi to have executed a dangerous tackle “just short of” red card level in accordance with World Rugby Regulation 17). When there is a lack of consistency that is why people walk away with a bitter taste in their mouths. There is too much subjectivity around the breakdown, high tackles and what is defined as dangerous play. It all contributes to ruining people’s enjoyment of the game. Very strong leadership now needs to take control, so that both the law-making and screening of referees is open and transparent and it becomes a joy to watch rugby again.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment ahead of the key second South Africa-England Test?
Cobus Visagie: Last week’s loss was a very bad result for England because the core of their team has been together now for three years and just eight months ago they were tipped as favourites to contest the 2019 Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand. However, at the moment they have slipped to fourth in the World Rugby rankings and are off the back of five consecutive defeats. In South Africa’s favour, they have the feel-good factor heading into the second Test, which is very important at this stage for a young team. The Springboks have also been aided and abetted by the fact that the first two Tests will have been played on the highveld. For the first time in a while, SA Rugby has done the right thing by not scheduling the first or second Tests in Cape Town or Durban. It’s good to make England play in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein and make them experience what hard grounds and altitude feels like. I believe South Africa have a very good chance of completing a three-nil series whitewash. I’m of the view that the Springboks should always win their home series.
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