Luke Watson still won’t make the Springbok squad for the Ireland and English tests, but the national selectors will blood several in-form Currie Cup players.
The form of Pierre Spies gives White an escape not to pick Watson, although Spies has been devastating as a No 8 in the Absa Currie Cup and not as an open-side option. Watson, consistently, has been the best open-side flanker in the country, through the Super 14 and the Currie Cup. He was very good playing in a beaten pack in Western Province’s semi-final defeat and newspaper reports that played off his performance against that of Spies were outrageous. One played openside flank in a pack whose tight five got murdered. The other played No 8 in a pack that marched relentlessly to a final.
Most independent observers would laud the possibility of Watson playing as open-sider, Spies playing at No 8 and Juan Smith completing the loose-trio. For those who still argue that Watson misses out because there are better, don’t kid yourself. Watson misses out because White does not rate him and never will.
White this weekend told the Sunday newspapers, English and Afrikaans, that for the first time his focus was on winning the World Cup and not the next test. Let’s hope the national coach can maintain this supposed belief on tour. He mentioned a similar thing prior to the Tri Nations. Then the Boks got hammered by France and White feared for his job. His reaction was to stick with the same players who failed him the year before.
Injuries forced him to introduce younger players and Spies was one of those to benefit with two outstanding home tests against New Zealand and Australia. But before we get too carried away, look at the impact of Spies at No 8 in his test debut. Yeah, there was no impact because there was nothing happening among the tight five.
To beat Ireland and to get at least one win out of two against England will require a tight five that is dominant and not just competitive. The loosies in the northern hemisphere will only ever be as good as their tight five. And White and his selectors will have to think carefully about who goes and stays in that department.
Rudolf Straeuli also opted for a young tight five in 2002 to play France, Scotland and England. Deon Carstens, Bakkies Botha and Wessel Roux were all the stars of the domestic competition. They got smashed by teams, whose tight five were well versed in technique.
It will require a mix and match in selection if White is to succeed where all Bok teams have failed since 1997.
Taking younger loose-forwards and backs is to be applauded, but the wiser and more battle-hardened souls are the non negotiables among the pack.
Speculation, based on White having a banter with the Sunday newspapers, include the selection of Francois Steyn as a utility back, potentially Brad Barritt and Jaco Pretorius as a second string midfield combination and the injection of youth in Hilton Lobberts and Kabamba Floors. Chiliboy Ralepelle will again tour, despite the Bulls selectors rating him third, at best, in their current senior set-up – a rating I fully agree with when you consider the quality of Botha and replacement hooker Strauss.
White will not select overseas-based players like Cobus Visagie, although there is a very strong case to be made for Visagie, given he has given all the English props a torrid time in the last two seasons, while French-based Shaun Sowerby would be a ‘horses for courses’ selection.
White will continue to pick John Smit as his first choice hooker and captain, but Os du Randt and Percy Montgomery will be rested. There is also talk that White will ‘rest’ his best outside back in the last two tests in Breyton Paulse. Just why only the selectors would know because Paulse has played very few matches this year and has ended his overseas commitments with Clermont two months ago.
With Montgomery out, White can choose between Bevin Fortuin, JP Pietersen and Steyn, but it seems Johan Roets is very much in the Watson mould. Regardless of what he does, he won’t make the team.
Of the contracted Boks who SARU will be paying until the end of 2007, Hanyani Shimange, Eddie Andrews, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Marius Joubert and De Wet Barry are unlikely to tour, while a decision has to be made on Jacques Cronje and Victor Matfield.
Joe van Niekerk, who has not had any rugby since the away leg of the Tri Nations, is also unclear about his tour involvement. Van Niekerk hurt his neck in August and it would be wiser to give him an additional month to make a complete recovery.
White’s biggest selection headache comes at lock. Matfield is the best contesting lineout in the world and Bakkies Botha is the best foil in a partnership to Matfield. Without Botha and Matfield, the likes of Johann Muller, Albert van den Berg and Danie Rossouw aren’t as imposing a prospect.
If you look at the two teams that will contest the Currie Cup final, the majority of the players are unlikely to feature in the touring squad. Of the Free Staters, Fortuin is the only probable backline inclusion, with Floors and Jannie du Plessis candidates among the pack. Among the Bulls, Ndungane and Wynand Olivier will probably tour, while Spies, Lobberts, Rossouw and Gary Botha should be in the national squad of 30. That’s less that 10 players out of the 30 coming from the two teams who have dominated the domestic competition.