Johannesburg - Of the many borderline tall tales told about Jonny Wilkinson’s demented work ethic, the most repeated is about his Christmas Day party trick, where he would go on a kicking session that could sometimes finish in the dark because he insisted on staying until every kick went over.
In his pursuit of excellence, the legendary former England flyhalf also pestered whoever was considered to be the best defender, stepper, passer or lines runner in Clive Woodward’s team to help him acquire that skill.
Supplement their income
By the end of his career, that crazed desire to take responsibility for his craft meant that he was arguably second only to New Zealand’s Dan Carter in the “best ever” debates that dominate pubs and online polls.
It’s a question that has to be asked of South African rugby players – do they take enough responsibility for their careers?
Former Springbok lock Victor Matfield did – he was so obsessed with cracking line-out codes that, every Monday, he’d ask SuperSport for all audio and footage around the opposition’s line-out to see what they did after each call.
Bok fly half Elton Jantjies – who has as many recovery and training gadgets as he presumably does tubs of grease for his hair – does as he wages his war against the growing notion that he is not Test match standard.
But, for the most part, our players don’t appear to introspect as much about their careers as much as they do about whether they turn up at training on time and if it is a UK, French or Japanese club they want to play for to supplement their income.
Stormers number eight Sikhumbuzo Notshe, in his move to play Sevens rugby in the 15s off-season to “improve my one-on-one defence ... up my skill levels and breakdown work”, is one recent player to display that self-awareness.
But too many of the rest are cocooned in that comfort zone of making the match-day 23, playing in whatever position the coach deems suitable for them and to whatever safety first (for that read structured) instructions said coach has come up with for the day.
Two prime examples are centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel, who promised so much when they first hit the scene, but have alarmingly gone backwards as players even though they still consistently get selected for the Bok team.
When he arrived, De Allende – 1.90m and 105kg’s worth of explosiveness – had a good split step and, as the Aussies like to say, a bit of sh*t about him (as in he didn’t take any).
We also kept on being told about how well he could pass off either hand, but that didn’t really show in games.
That phantom passing hit its nadir in the Boks’ first end-of-year tour game against Ireland, when De Allende inexplicably grubbered a ball to a three-man overlap when moving it through the hands would have sufficed.
Often arriving early
Traces of how De Allende was ruined date back to our coaches’ silly insistence that inside centres are only there to set up a target, Wynand Olivier-style, by taking the ball up.
The poor blighter, who could have been our answer to the All Blacks’ Ma’a Nonu, now looks like a flank playing in midfield, tucking the ball under his armpit and burrowing head first into defenders.
Kriel’s situation is slightly different.
Another explosive sort at 1.86m and 96kg, he impressed as a fullback in junior rugby, but was barely given time to adjust to that at first-class level, with Heyneke Meyer turning him into an outside centre.
While the tries have kept coming, he has been found wanting in the rest of the things that make for a good outside centre, such as defence, reading the game, straightening the line and distribution.
By all accounts, Kriel is dedicated, often arriving early and leaving late to work on his conditioning at the Bulls.
But if his decision to turn down an invitation to play Sevens in 2015 to further his rugby education by playing club rugby in Japan is anything to go by, he has neglected to hone the muscle between his ears – which would have helped his guile and game smarts.
Both players have clearly been mucked around by the system, but at what stage do they take charge of their careers and reach their true potential?
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