Brave but not bold

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes that in principle the decision to rest the World Cup certainties is sound. What is flawed is the argument that those traveling to Ireland and England in their place are the next best in South Africa.

The last month of the Currie Cup supports the view that too many good ones missed out on selection and not nearly enough good ones made it into the national squad of 28 that is a combination of ‘yes men’ and ‘journey men’.

White will believe defeat can be excused because he has left behind many of his contracted players. He will argue that the core of his World Cup starting XV is in South Africa, wrapped in cotton wool, and safe for the 2007 World Cup challenge.

As White told the rugby sunshine broadcaster SuperSport on Saturday evening the selection of his latest squad was a ‘win-win’ situation. Predictably, no one there challenged this.

But if you scratch just a little, it is not necessarily a ‘win-win’ situation, more by virtue of who has been picked than those World Cup certainties tasked with sleeping at home this November.

Of White’s ideal starting XV four of the first choice backline players will be on tour. Among the pack, he’s picked three of his certainties in John Smit, CJ van der Linde and Juan Smith, while Pierre Spies’s role as a starting option or an impact player (at the 2007 World Cup) will be clearer after the tour. That leaves seven players who have to emerge as winners in their positions, even if the team loses.

If the tour is not about winning but about finding capable replacements for those World Cup certainties in Du Randt, Botha, Matfield, Burger, Van Niekerk, Du Preez, Habana and Montgomery, then primary to the squad analysis has to be these positions.

White has ignored the most powerful front row option in the country, in the Cheetahs, and opted to pick two looseheads who could not make their Currie Cup starting teams. Deon Carstens last toured north in 2002 and he was humbled, while Lawrence Sephaka has been an international journeyman since 2001. If both fail, there is no excuse because there are better in South Africa on form.

At lock, Johan Muller has settled as the back-up to (Bakkies) Botha, but this tour will provide no answer as to who can succeed Matfield. We know Albert van den Berg’s limitations and 36 year-old veteran Johan Ackermann is in the Botha mould. Why no Barend Pieterse, the form lock of the Currie Cup and described by Matield as one of the best in the country?

Finding Schalk Burger’s replacement should have been the most critical selection, but White has refused to reconsider his belief that the Boks don’t need an openside specialist. He will tour with ball carrying loose-forwards, who don’t have the skill to forage for ball on the ground and slow down opposition ball. Spies, in the more confined northern hemisphere environment, is not the openside answer and should the Boks fail at the breakdown then White can have no excuse. In Luke Watson, Ryno van der Merwe, Kabamba Floors, Derick Kuun, Warren Brits and Roland Bernard he has specialists in this facet of the game. All of them will be watching on television, as they did when the Boks lost 49-0 in Brisbane.

Everything (in White’s mind) is settled among the backs, except for who replaces Montgomery. If you look at the selections then the player he will be willing to succeed is 19 year old Francois Steyn, ahead of JP Pietersen and Bevan Fortuin. Steyn is the only one who offers a goalkicking option and it was goalkicking and a prodigious line-kicking game that has won White over in the last three years.

There are better ball-playing fullback options in South Africa in Brent Russell, Gio Aplan, Philip Burger, Earl Rose and Breyton Paulse. But they are ball players and that seems to be a curse for the national selectors.

White, Ian McIntosh and Peter Jooste have omitted (rather than picked) so many good footballers. And that’s the most damning indictment of the latest national squad selection. It shows bravery (in leaving behind contracted players), but it does not show boldness.

England boss Andy Robinson will sleep more comfortably than should have been the case. His is an international career at the crossroads and the Bok selectors may just have given him the padded bridge to safely make it to France in 2007.