Only 22 count

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes to appreciate Jake White’s national selections you have to accept who White sees as his run-on XV.

It may also explain some omissions while clarifying those selections some believe to be surprising.

White knows his starting XV is very good, but it will be the make-up of his match 22 that will determine how far the Boks go in the World Cup. As evident in Durban, 22 players got the Sharks into the Super 14 final, not just XV.

The impact player is a specialist position. It is not an afterthought or a sleight that a player is not good enough to start. We saw that in Durban. All the second half substitutions made an enormous contribution at a time when the Sharks threatened to implode.

Ryan Kankowski was an example of how easily a play-off match can be lost. Kankowski was brilliant in the first half. But his inexperience showed in two crucial moments early in the second half. He picked up and drove against the wheel of the scrum, conceded yardage and gave the Blues a sniff. He also showed poor technique in missing the tackle on Blues midfielder Isaia Toeava, which led to a try. Suddenly the Blues were in the lead and there was panic among the Sharks. Within five minutes coach Dick Muir had introduced experience and calm heads from the bench. Bob Skinstad and Warren Britz were outstanding in the final quarter. So too Albert van den Berg and Bismarck du Plessis. Three of the four substitutions are very experienced players.

White, when assessing his World Cup campaign, will place a premium on his bench. It is why Kankowski, an outrageously talented player, is not in the squad and Skinstad is.

The two were never competing for the same place. Kankowski was up against Pierre Spies as a starting option at No 8. Jacques Botes, another stand out player for the Sharks, competes directly with Schalk Burger as an opensider. White sees them either as starting or not being there.

Skinstad’s opposition to making the World Cup squad is Joe van Niekerk. White has to decide which of the two offers him more impact, experience and comfort in the final quarter of a big game. By all accounts, he has not yet made that decision.

Despite many claims of surprises in the Bok squad, there was nothing surprising; not even the political interference that got Luke Watson national training duties for the first time. We’ve come to expect political shenanigans with every Bok squad announcement. White did not even know Watson had been added to the original list of 45 when the pre-record of the squad was taped. What are the chances of the player making the 22? Zero.

Watson realistically only becomes a discussion point as an openside option should Burger be injured.

White’s starting XV at the World Cup will read: Percy Montgomery, Ashwin Willemse, Jaques Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Andre Pretorius, Fourie Du Preez, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, BJ Botha, John Smit and Os du Randt.

The discussion in the next two months will be who makes up the other seven. Gary Botha is the favourite as back-up hooker, CJ van der Linde, comfortable as a loosehead and tighthead, is a certainty to add impact off the bench, while Danie Rossouw and AJ Venter give White utility options in the second and back row of the scrum. Skinstad gives him a lineout, an eight and closed side flanker option as well as leadership. Van Niekerk’s strength is as an athlete (when he is fit) and he could also be used as an openside role, although it is not ideal. It is hard to see any other of the squad forwards adding that kind of versatility to the bench.

Among the backs, a player like Ruan Pienaar gives White an advantage of picking five forwards and two backs on his bench. Pienaar can play 9, 10, wing and fullback. He also kicks for goal. Only if there is political interference will he miss out to Ricky Januarie.

Frans Steyn is an obvious inclusion in the match 22, which leaves one specialist midfielder, among the impact players, as the only question that has yet to be answered.

So, depending on your loyalties or preference, don’t get too excited or irritated about those additional names. They are, in the context of the World Cup, nothing more than tackle bags for the 22 chosen ones.