But Brus­sow’s ar­rival has made the con­test for flank po­si­tions keener

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

THE an­kle in­jury to Juan Smith, which makes him a doubt­ful starter for next week’s first away TriNa­tions fix­ture, could give Schalk Burger an op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to the Spring­bok start­ing team in a new role as a blind­side flank.

Smith still wasn’t able to train fully with the squad in Pre­to­ria this week in prepa­ra­tion for Mon­day’s de­par­ture for Perth, where the Boks play Aus­tralia next Satur­day.

Ac­cord­ing to the Bok coach Peter de Vil­liers, the big Free Stater is doubt­ful, with a fi­nal de­ci­sion on his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the game de­layed un­til the side ar­rives on Tues­day.

How­ever, it looks as though he will be ruled out, for yes­ter­day he was mov­ing un­com­fort­ably, and Burger looks set to make his re­turn to rugby by fit­ting into the No.7 jer­sey at the Su­bi­aco Oval.

How­ever, while in some senses a gap be­ing pre­sented now to Burger is a so­lu­tion to a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion re­quired from De Vil­liers, there are hid­den perils that he should be mind­ful of.

Rush­ing Burger back into the start­ing team the mo­ment he had fully re­cov­ered from in­jury for the sec­ond Test against the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions in June was a de­ci­sion that back­fired.

Burger is re­garded as a freak of na­ture, but Pre­to­ria proved that not even he can be ex­pected to be sharp enough to go straight back into rugby in a Test match af­ter a twom­onth break from the game.

He did not play well in his 70 min­utes on the field against the Lions, and the mo­ment of mad­ness that led to his yel­low card and sub­se­quent sus­pen­sion might have been the prod­uct of the ex­tra pres­sure that was placed on him.

Al­though Burger has been train­ing with the West­ern Prov­ince team since he was sus­pended, and def­i­nitely won’t be out of con­di­tion, match fit­ness could be a dif­fer­ent story. It was an­tic­i­pated that he would make his re­turn by be­ing eased off the bench next week, and for the player’s sake that might still be the wis­est action.

The big­gest headache that De Vil­liers faces though is the one re­lated to the equi­lib­rium of the core group of se­nior play­ers that is cur­rently driv­ing the Bok suc­cess – and here lies a co­nun­drum for the Bok coach that frankly is dif­fi­cult to pro­vide an­swers to.

Re­gard­less of Smith’s sta­tus for next Satur­day, the Boks face a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion at some stage:

Hein­rich Brus­sow was ex­cel­lent in the home leg of the Tri-Na­tions, and in many ways he has helped rede­fine the South African ap­proach to for­ward play.

But Burger has been an im­por­tant, tal­is­manic and pop­u­lar mem­ber of the “Bok fam­ily” that Jake White first brought to­gether in 2004 and which has gone on to ce­ment a golden era for Spring­bok rugby.

De Vil­liers knows this, for his con­fus­ing re­sponses to the Pre­to­ria in­ci­dent seemed to be de­signed to strengthen his own re­la­tion­ship with Burger and the core group.

It is not just a mere co­in­ci­dence that play­ers who never spoke up for De Vil­liers be­fore are now sud­denly do­ing so. The pub­lic ut­ter­ances that de­flected at­ten­tion from the se­ries win over the Lions frus­trated and ir­ri­tated the play­ers – but at least he was back­ing them, and he was al­low­ing them to call the shots.

Hav­ing the play­ers run­ning the show is not a bad place to be when those play­ers are mostly all vet­er­ans, have been around the block hun­dreds of times to­gether, and have won ev­ery tro­phy that there is avail­able. It is not a unique sit­u­a­tion the Boks find them­selves in, for it is com­mon knowl­edge that by the time the Eng­land team reached the 2003 World Cup they were in a po­si­tion where they coached them­selves.

Clive Wood­ward had done the hard work years ear­lier in putting the sys­tems in place and build­ing up ex­pe­ri­ence, and his chief job be­came se­lec­tion. His crit­ics say this was one of the main rea­sons why Wood­ward bombed so spec­tac­u­larly as coach of the 2005 Lions – he was un­com­fort­able once re­moved from the play­ers and the sys­tems that brought him suc­cess through be­ing to­gether for a long pe­riod.

In this re­gard, there have been whis­pers from New Zealand that some of the All Blacks envy the Bok set-up. It is go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to see if now that Dan Carter has re­turned to bol­ster the body of se­nior play­ers in the Kiwi unit, the All Black play­ers might make a sim­i­lar read­just­ment to prag­matic rugby to the one driven by John Smit with the Boks.

But much of the suc­cess of the Bok player-driven sys­tem re­volves around the fact that up un­til now, the se­nior play­ers have been able to se­lect them­selves. When the ex­cel­lent cap­tain Smit, in­dis­pens­able for his lead­er­ship, was chal­lenged for his hooker po­si­tion by Bis­marck du Plessis, he just moved to tight­head.

Brus­sow’s emer­gence has come while Burger has been ab­sent through first in­jury and then sus­pen­sion. Brus­sow him­self has said that he con­sid­ers him­self to be just bor­row­ing Burger’s No6 jer­sey, but his im­pact on the Bok game has been a lot more dra­matic and pos­i­tive than that. The jury may be out about his longevity as a big player in the Bok suc­cess, but for now he just has to play.

The op­tion of mov­ing Burger to No7 per­ma­nently might sound like a good one to those who don’t rate Smith, but the Free Stater is prob­a­bly the best blind­side flanker in the world and in the home leg he had re­turned to his best form.

Play­ing Burger in his place if he is in­jured, and then stick­ing with him if he ex­cels there, could just have the ef­fect of driv­ing a wedge into the happy fam­ily of play­ers. And even a small wedge, as Nick Mal­lett dis­cov­ered in 1998 when he se­lected Bob Skin­stad ahead of the es­tab­lished An­dre Ven­ter, can have the ef­fect of de­flat­ing unity of pur­pose and wreck­ing the team dy­namic.

It makes for an in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge and is go­ing to de­mand good man­age­ment skills from the coaches and per­haps some mag­na­nim­ity from the se­nior play­ers. But don’t be­lieve De Vil­liers when he says hav­ing so many star loose-for­wards to choose from is a good po­si­tion to be in, for this is not go­ing to be an easy de­ci­sion and has the po­ten­tial for far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions.


LOOSE TALK: Flankers Schalk Burger and Hein­rich Brüs­sow in earnest dis­cus­sion dur­ing the Spring­boks’ train­ing ses­sion in Pre­to­ria this week.

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