Colouring the numbers

Keo, in his Business Day Column, writes there is no grey when it comes to picking the Springbok squad and too much black and white. There is also limited coaching science.

In SA national selection remains more of a colouring-in exercise, where what matters more is the colour of the final picture and not necessarily the merits of that picture.

The country’s politicians don’t seem to care that just two black wingers is the norm for the Bulls in the Super 14 and that wingers make up nearly 50% of the South African black-playing numbers in the competition.

It is not fashionable to hammer home the point in the months that lead up to the international season. Politicians — and some media — start showing an interest only in June every year, which is an indictment of the sincerity and motives of those who seek a colourful picture only at a national level.

Springbok coach Jake White can’t pick fewer black players than he did last year because that would be interpreted as transformation regression. Such an interpretation is flawed because White’s pool base is dependent on players chosen by the regional coaches. Invariably, this is limited to outside backs, the odd prop and the occasional scrumhalf.

White and his selectors have to balance each selection with a numbers count. How many black players? It complicates any selection when a quality white player is trying to force his way into the national squad.

Take Ruan Pienaar, Wynand Olivier and BJ Botha as three examples of players who have performed consistently in this year’s competition, and would be reasonably expected to make the Bok squad. If White is to pick Pienaar, he has to drop Bolla Conradie, who currently ranks behind Ricky Januarie and Fourie du Preez in the Bok pecking order. But that means a white player replacing a black player, and if White does that he has to balance it with finding a place for a black player at the expense of a white player already in the squad.

It gets more complicated. To accommodate (BJ) Botha, the form SA tighthead in the competition, he has to drop one of Lawrence Sephaka or Eddie Andrews. Again I am using the national pecking order that has CJ van der Linde as one and Sephaka and Andrews as two and three.

Wayne Julies is another who stands in the way of Wynand Olivier. Julies is behind Jean de Villiers and De Wet Barry in the pecking order as a No 12.

White has Bryan Habana and potentially Januarie as first choice options. Outside of that where does he go? To the wing with one of the Ndungane twins, Jongi Nokwe or Tonderai Chavhanga? Or does he reinvest in Breyton Paulse, back from France in June?

Nine months ago a Bok match that boasted nine black players beat Australia at Ellis Park. It was a significant day in Bok rugby, but if White and his selectors were able to pick who they felt were the 15 best, as all their opponents can, they would not get past three black players on any given Saturday, given form and black number limitations when it comes to positional choice.

In the context of Springbok rugby, that will never be deemed good enough. So invariably the compromise comes at a national level, while the likes of the Bulls and Cheetahs are able to pick largely white teams in the Super 14, using merit as their guide.

Who would want to be the national coach when the responsibility of painting the right picture comes against the expectation of winning a World Cup? Who would want to be him when regional coaches can do as they please, with total disregard for the colour of the bigger national picture?

Jake White in 2004 was voted the best coach in the world. He should have got the award as best artist because the colourful picture he painted in the past two years was a damn side harder than any coaching he did. Pretty pictures, though, don’t win you World Cups, which generally require a bit more science.