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