Cape Town – Emotion eclipsing reality … that may well be responsible for some sentiment that Rassie Erasmus has been too economical with Lions representation in his enlarged Springbok group.
When the 43-strong initial party was named by the new coach on Saturday, he almost inevitably ruffled certain Johannesburg feathers.
Five Lions members? That is a miserly 11.62 percent of the group, and it seems strange, upon immediate thought, when the Lions are once again leading the South African charge at an advanced stage of Super Rugby, and admirable competition runners-up for each of the two years before.
Compare that, for instance, to the Sharks representation: 13, amounting to easily the most from any single SA franchise in Super Rugby (the Stormers and Bulls both boast nine).
Perhaps the first point to make is that one sports team performing best on paper doesn’t always, automatically, translate into mass tickets to a higher cause … the landscapes, playing styles and desired strategies can vary a great deal.
There were periods during the Stormers’ general dominance for several seasons of the SA challenge in Super Rugby, during the Allister Coetzee years, when this didn’t simply mean associated, notably widespread rights to Bok places.
National coaches often have very different ideas about players than their domestic-level tracksuit counterparts, not to mention how they view key positional combinations and the like.
The other thing to remember is that, with New Zealand so obviously still the market leaders of world rugby, Erasmus is entitled to feel hopeful about certain Sharks personnel when he views their performances against the cream of franchises from that country.
While the Lions do lead the broad SA charge by a fair distance, it has been educative to see the Sharks’ more overtly abrasive style rattle the NZ teams this year rather more than the Lions have.
Admittedly defending champions the Crusaders were convenient foes to sidestep in roster terms this year, but the Sharks nevertheless came within a whisker of a four-game “slam” over other NZ opponents.
Had it not been for the Hurricanes’ last-gasp and cruel home 38-37 snatch of the spoils against the tourists from Durban several weeks ago, the Sharks would have boasted wins over them, the Chiefs, Highlanders and Blues.
It was during the course of such acid examinations, you have to suspect, that Erasmus came to favourable conclusions about quite a few of the Sharks’ squad.
But there are other factors to consider over any perceptions of a Lions “snub” of sorts.
Exactly which omissions from that team are people really compellingly entitled to feel angry about?
A reminder at this point over Lions players Erasmus probably (or in some cases more certainly) would have been partial to, but for injury-related issues.
One is Warren Whiteley, likely to have remained his skipper of choice against England had he not missed so much of Super Rugby this year (and he’s still not back in action).
There is also no reason to suspect that Erasmus would have overlooked tearaway Jaco Kriel who, like Whiteley, is the sort of skilled loosie the Bok coach and former Test flanker himself probably holds in considerable esteem.
As we know, Kriel was sidelined for the entire Super Rugby campaign and recently released from his Emirates Airline Park contract anyway to begin his new career with Gloucester.
Reports very recently suggested that Erasmus was also impressed with the qualities of blindside flank Cyle Brink, still only 24 and perhaps with his best rugby still ahead – but he has also been inconveniently crocked of late.
Experienced scrumhalf Ross Cronje, 28, didn’t make the cut (after 10 caps under the Coetzee Bok regime), but bear in mind his decidedly stop-start 2018 due to his own fitness issues.
Others who could not be considered, of course, are Courtnall Skosan and surely one of the first names Erasmus would have wished to include: powerhouse hooker Malcolm Marx.
The Lions players who have been welcomed to the Bok plans at least include the deserving, near-automatic warhorse Franco Mostert and stalwart flyhalf Elton Jantjies, plus some interesting new Jo’burg-based faces in flier Aphiwe Dyantyi, former Sevens favourite Kwagga Smith and the much-improved second-rower Marvin Orie.
There will be ruefulness, or outright indignation, in some Lions-partial circles about the cold shoulders at this stage for Ruan Combrinck (a fine utility back-three player at best, but frankly sub-standard in comeback appearances so far since his return from major injury) and powerhouse Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
But the stocky centre, for all his strong leg-drive possibilities, still isn’t the finished article both skills and defence-wise … which might explain why he hasn’t even earned Swys de Bruin’s nod consistently in the Lions’ starting midfield.
Perhaps the clever Harold Vorster has some reason to feel aggrieved, though at 24 his time might yet come.
The same applies to Andries Coetzee, who has been committed, urgent and reliable at fullback in Super Rugby this year.
Then again, he was given a very generous 13 games for the Boks last year and way too seldom looked as though he genuinely belonged at that level; if he slowly claws back into contention, then fair dinkum, as they’d say in Australia.
Ruan Dreyer? The tighthead does have four Test caps already, but continues to be rather too penalty-prone at scrum time, by my book, and there are currently a few better ones.
No, given varying circumstances the Lions haven’t been too glaringly hard done by …
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