Young guns are the form guns

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes that the modern game is a young man’s game.

The losing Currie Cup coaches and captains on Saturday found solace in the relative youthfulness of their teams. This, they said, gave them hope for next year.

What these losing spokespeople failed to mention was the relative youthfulness of the winning teams. A young Bulls team crushed a young WP team. A young Free State team was equally ruthless in exposing a young Sharks team.

There were exceptions in all four teams. Butch James is now considered a veteran. Johan Ackermann is a grand pa at 36 years-old and Warren Britz has done the circuit for some time. Ollie le Roux, of the Cheetahs, is the old man in his team, but there’s not too much of an older brigade outside of Le Roux.

Among the Bulls Johan Roets would consider himself well established, but Marius Delport, Wynand Oliver, Morne Steyn and Heini Adams are kids. Not too mention Pierre Spies, Hilton Lobberts, Derick Kuun and Adriaan Fondse.

And Derick Hougaard is yet to turn 25.

If the young Sharks and Western Province were feeling hopeful in defeat, imagine the euphoria of the young and victorious Cheetahs and Bulls.

The losers this past weekend should not have taken comfort that youthfulness cost them the semi-finals. Both teams were beaten by better teams, whose all-round attacking and defensive games proved superior, despite a similarity in age.

Home ground advantage was a factor but the result was not defined by where the matches were played. The Bulls and Cheetahs would have won if the respective games were played in Cape Town and Durban, such was the difference in quality of the two teams on Saturday.

The strength of the domestic game has been in Pretoria and Bloemfontein for the last three years, even if Jake White’s national squads over the same period have not reflected this.

On the evidence of the weekend, there is hope for South African rugby if the younger players are effectively managed in the next three years.

But coaches need to lose the mentality that young teams are expected to come second best. The modern game is a young man’s game. Professional careers are now five years when a decade ago Currie Cup and test careers could span 10 years.

Few players sustain the required level of Currie Cup, Super 14 and test rugby beyond this 60 month period.

The All Blacks, this year, were a young team. The halfbacks were 22 years-old. With the exception of Anton Oliver, Doug Howlett (28) was the oldest in their squad of 30.

The All Blacks that played in the 2003 World Cup’s average age was 25. Yes, England, the oldest team at the tournament, won, but that will be the last World Cup won by an old team.

Players come onto the provincial and test scene at 20. Many are gone at 25 because there are better 20 and 21 year-olds making an impact.

The exception is in the tight five, where a player’s prime is the other side of 25. When it comes to loose-forwards and backline players, if you haven’t made it as a test player by 25, you probably aren’t going to get there.

White’s Bok squad, to be announced following the Currie Cup final, will include players who will be described as young players. White, like the losing Currie Cup coaches, will believe this youthfulness can be an excuse if things go wrong against Ireland and England.

But White’s new Boks should be seen as nothing other than the form players in South Africa. White, if he does select those youngsters who have been brilliant in the domestic competition, will be investing in form and not youth.

There is no such thing as a young team anymore. There is form and this form usually works in three year cycles. If a team gets a fourth year out of a cycle it is because their coaching staff has cleverly integrated new players.

Western Province and the Sharks lost on Saturday because they were not good enough. Age had nothing to do with it, just like age should have nothing to do with the national squad selections.

Coaches who invest in form tend to get winning results.