Injury curse is a wake up call

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes that Jake White should not be cursing the rugby gods for the injuries to Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie and Breyton Paulse. He should be thanking them.

It is good fortune to lose these players now because it forces the Springbok selectors to go outside the tried and tested in the next few Tests to see if the second-tier player is good enough to do an emergency job at next year’s World Cup.

New Zealand have beaten SA and the rest in the race to develop 30 Test players. SA and Australia have to pick their best XV to beat the All Blacks and other teams.

The All Blacks are winning Tests when selecting starting teams that clearly are not their best. The Boks, Wallabies, French and English can’t boast similar success at this stage.

White has to be commended for bringing stability to the Bok set-up post-2003 but, by wholeheartedly trusting his best XV in most Test matches in the past two years, White has left himself exposed to the whims of nature on the eve of a knockout match at next year’s World Cup.

The question White and his selectors can’t answer with conviction is: who plays fullback if Monty goes down?

Do we have a capable replacement for Schalk Burger? What is going to happen when John Smit’s groin, knees and whatever else play up enough?

This year should largely be the one in which the second-tier player is being developed.

The Boks lost ground to do this against the Scots, but fortunately the selectors’ hands have been forced by injury.

I say fortunately because it means White gets to see how Joe van Niekerk shapes as an open-side option against quality opposition. He can assess what depth there is in the midfield and he can gauge the competency of a different back-three axis with Brent Russell replacing the injured Breyton Paulse.

The concern is that John Smit and Percy Montgomery still play every Test. They are so important to the success of the Boks at next year’s World Cup that if either breaks down, White may do the same.

In the next few Tests — and forget that it is the tri-nations — White needs to give another fullback a chance against Australia and New Zealand.

He also has to trust another hooker to do a job for him.

He has to use some of these Tests as if Monty and Smit are crocked. He will then be able to travel to Paris in 2007 with a clear idea of the strength of his second-tier player. Currently, he is not sure how the next best 15 — plus two — in the squad would shape against the best.

What is disappointing is that all the changes to the Boks in the past year have been forced by injury. With a bit of strategic foresight, these would have been changes made out of choice and not necessity.

The All Blacks in the past two weekends stuttered to a 2-0 series win against Ireland. In three Tests against the Irish, All Blacks coach Graham Henry has picked three different starting XVs and the All Blacks have won all three.

The All Blacks coach has never once felt the need to play his best back, Dan Carter, against Ireland — a team that has been one of the top two in the northern hemisphere for the past three seasons.

Henry is doing what one would like to have seen from Jake six months ago when the Boks played three Tests overseas. Henry is building the second-tier playing base so he is covered if he loses one of his stars on the eve of a World Cup knockout match.

If Carter cannot play, Henry can turn to Luke McAlister or Nick Evans. Both have played Test rugby for him in the past year. It must be remembered that Henry even played Leon Macdonald at flyhalf against the Boks in Dunedin and won.

He has options in every position. I accept that McAlister, Evans and Macdonald are not as good as Carter at flyhalf, but they have been good enough to help the All Blacks beat the Lions, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and SA.

Henry, in the past 18 months, has built cover for every position, bar the No13 jersey. If he loses Richie McCaw, he has Chris Masoe as cover. If he loses Chris Jack, he now has Jason Eaton, Greg Rawlinson and James Ryan as potential cover.

Again we ask, if White loses Monty and Smit, who are his options? We don’t know because none has played there in the past two years. That’s not positive; it’s negative a year out from the World Cup.