Back seat for rugby, an an­gry cap­tain and stand­ing up for Div?

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

IT HAS been a strange week, and not just be­cause we have a rugby Test match in Cape Town to­day that for the past seven days has played sec­ond fid­dle to soc­cer.

The tone for the build-up to the New­lands clash was set in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Spring­bok win over Wales. I thought the Boks, con­sid­er­ing they had new com­bi­na­tions and new play­ers, did well to win at the Mil­len­nium Sta­dium.

But in­stead of high­light­ing the pos­i­tive af­ter­wards, skip­per John Smit, who in­cluded him­self in the crit­i­cism, de­scribed the per­for­mance as or­di­nary. Maybe it comes down to per­cep­tion and ex­pec­ta­tion. I was half ex­pect­ing Wales to win last week. In­deed, in my pre­view to the game on the in­ter­net I tipped a nar­row Welsh vic­tory.

Smit, who had trained with the play­ers all week, may have been ex­pect­ing a bit more than was de­liv­ered. In any event, the cap­tain may have clar­i­fied his view at a press con­fer­ence later in the week. He said while there were new play­ers on the field, a core of ex­pe­ri­enced guys was still present, and re­gard­less of mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances, the way they played in the first 20 min­utes was un­ac­cept­able.

Which is the right at­ti­tude to have if you are the cap­tain of the world’s cham­pion team, per­fec­tion should al­ways be the goal. And he was 100% on the money when he said that a sim­i­lar feel­ing-in pe­riod by the Boks to­day will be fa­tal against France.

But if hav­ing the Spring­bok cap­tain adopt­ing a more crit­i­cal at­ti­tude to his team’s play than most me­dia did was a strange feel­ing, the week be­came stranger still for me per­son­ally when I found my­self de­fend­ing the Spring­bok coach.

Okay, okay, let’s not get too car­ried away – Peter de Vil­liers’ com­ments about the rel­a­tive strengths of South African and Euro­pean rugby were prob­a­bly ill-ad­vised. But I was at the press con­fer­ence, and am not con­vinced that the way it came across in the me­dia was the way he in­tended it to.

What De Vil­liers was do­ing was com­par­ing the play­ers in the Spring­bok team, with his point be­ing that the Euro­pean-based play­ers were a bit off the pace com­pared to the Su­per 14 play­ers. That is a hard one to judge. Rugby has never been an em­pir­i­cal sci­ence, so we just have to ac­cept it as his opin­ion.

Hav­ing a go at the Su­per 14 coaches for not look­ing af­ter the play­ers and push­ing them one game too far was also a bit dumb. The need to win in Cardiff saw De Vil­liers press Vic­tor Mat­field and Jaque Fourie, two play­ers who were on the field al­most the en­tire Su­per 14, into ac­tion. How does that dif­fer from a Su­per 14 coach who fields an over­worked key player in a must-win fi­nal?

But when it comes to se­lec­tion, and his jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his se­lec­tions, so far this sea­son De Vil­liers has got most things right. The ex­cep­tion has been the ax­ing of Frans Steyn, who to my mind should al­ways be one of the first names en­tered on the Spring­bok team sheet.

Ar­gu­ing that De Vil­liers is wrong in leav­ing out Joe van Niek­erk be­cause he is based in France fails to take into ac­count that on ev­ery sec­ond street corner in South Africa there is a tree that pro­duces qual­ity No 8s in­stead of fruit.

De Vil­liers has al­ways said that he will only choose over­seas­based play­ers where there is ob­vi­ously no-one in South Africa in the same class, and there has been no con­tra­dic­tion from him on that score. Ire­land based BJ Botha is play­ing tight­head for the Boks to­day only be­cause there are no in­ter­na­tional qual­ity play­ers in that po­si­tion in­side the coun­try.

And the same can be ar­gued for De Vil­liers’ other con­tentious se­lec­tion de­ci­sion, which was the re­ten­tion of Butch James. There are some de­cent fly­halves in South Africa, but out­side of Morne Steyn there are none that bring the all­round at­tributes that the ex­pe­ri­enced James brings. In other words, he can do what Peter Grant does, and kick the ball vast dis­tances.

The Fourie du Preez in­jury means Ruan Pien­aar has to go back to scrumhalf. That leaves a gap at fly­half, one which a year ago De Vil­liers would prob­a­bly have filled with Earl Rose. If your ob­jec­tive is to win Test matches, James is a much more sen­si­ble choice.

And though the jury is still out on some of the new play­ers, sen­si­ble is prob­a­bly the word that de­scribes most of the cur­rent se­lec­tions.

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