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