Forward thinking

Keo, in SA Rugby magazine, writes that Peter de Villiers should be appointed to a second successive term as Bok coach – and gives the blueprint that would make this appointment logical.

South African rugby’s future has never looked so secure. Careful management of and greater patience with players is non-negotiable to turn the prospect of long-term international dominance into the tangibles that come with Test wins and tournament successes.

This country is blessed with more natural talent than any other, New Zealand included, and the depth is spread across every position. There’s not a position in which South Africa suffers, but there’s a perception that we suffer in too many positions because the patience needed in developing players and allowing them to mature isn’t always applied.

Players too often have left this country disillusioned at the inconsistent provincial, regional and national selection policy, and this is the one curse of having so much talent. If there’s no immediate blossoming, coaches and selectors have turned to the next talent.

In countries not as fortunate to have South Africa’s playing base, coaches are judged on their ability to develop players as much as their team’s results.

Quade Cooper, the outstanding Reds flyhalf, is just one example of how a country with limited rugby union resources had to stick with what they had identified. Cooper played Super Rugby as a 19-year-old and played like a kid just out of school. His game lacked natural authority, there was no maturity and one act of brilliance was counter-balanced with three acts of schoolboy jitters.

The Australians didn’t panic because they couldn’t afford to. They kept on playing him and three years later he’s the sensation of the tournament, and he’s only 22 years old.

In the early- to mid-noughties our coaches were inspired by the way Australian Stephen Larkham played flyhalf, so they tried to find South Africa’s Stephen Larkham. There were many players of similar skill but lacking in experience. They weren’t given the time to develop and because they didn’t play like the veteran Stephen Larkham they were dismissed as pretenders. It was wrong and that kind of thinking will always be wrong.

Identification is critical to any strategy and in the next 10 years the greatest opponent South African rugby will face is itself. New Zealand will always be competitive and, in the right cycle, seemingly unbeatable. But the Kiwis have suffered like never before because of the overseas player exodus. It has not necessarily weakened the national team, but it has shredded the fabric of the country’s Super Rugby superiority.

It used to be a Super Rugby experience to win in New Zealand. Now with some teams it is considered a failure not to win at least half of their matches there. The quality of players leaving New Zealand is also of finer pedigree than the South African ones who have sought northern hemisphere salaries and the comfort of less intense domestic leagues.

South Africa’s game can maintain those seeking a European experience. New Zealand’s can’t, and that’s the biggest advantage South African rugby currently has over New Zealand. The lesser advantage is that our schools rugby structure is the best in the world and the production line of talent is endless.

Having the best recipe still doesn’t guarantee the best meal, and that’s why the dismantling of coaching and administrative egos has to be as ongoing as transformation. It can’t be an event; it has to be part of everyone’s contribution to a calmer, better and more honest South African game.

Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers, under pressure from politicians to include more black faces in the national squad, succumbed to the pressure and picked players not good enough to play in the midweek Bok squad last November.

The selections were blatant window-dressing and particularly sad because South African rugby has progressed in substance when it comes to a national game that includes anyone good enough to play it or have the passion to contribute to its health.

The selections and shocking subsequent results indicated that South African rugby lacked depth. The truth is more pleasing because between the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks, South Africa has three of the most powerful provinces in world rugby, and all three teams are well represented by the next generation, who have succeeded at junior level and are excelling in Super Rugby.

Add the handful of genuine national contenders playing in Europe and South Africa should be able to select two national run-on XVs of near equal strength. Previously, only New Zealand could do that and if they continue to exclude their offshore players they will never be in a position to do so again.

South African rugby has been spoilt by the player investment made in 2004 by then  Springbok coach Jake White and his selectors. The Bok coach trusted youth and allowed this youth to grow up on the international field and not in domestic rugby. These players went on to win the World Cup and because of their youth many are still around to defend the title. Those new to the environment have walked into a culture of winning and excellence. It’s easier to prosper when you live in a house built with cement and not dressed up with colourful wallpaper.

The talent, though, is what makes South Africa the envy of everyone. No other country has as much international depth among wings, scrumhalves, loose forwards, locks and hookers.

Every country, bar Italy and Argentina, suffers for quality tightheads, but while they have these front-row Frankensteins, they have little else to trouble the more established teams.

South Africa’s talent has to be celebrated, and where there’s a feeling of anxiety, the perceived second-rate talent has to be coached and the decision to invest in a player who’s not the complete case study has to be supported with a desire to get the maximum out of his talent.

Bulls and Bok flyhalf Morné Steyn, playing a secondary role to Derick Hougaard at the Bulls, was never considered the all-round international package. He got a chance last year, kicked the most incredible pressure penalty in the series-winning Test against the British & Irish Lions and forced the selectors to play him. In a new environment, with different demands and philosophies he had not been exposed to, his game strengthened and he finished the season as one of the top three international flyhalves and definitely the most consistent wearing a No 10 jersey.

An early call has to be made on who’s good enough to play Test rugby, not just with an emphasis in 2011 but also 2015.

It’s possible to prepare for both World Cups in the next six months and doing so would also address the issue of player burnout and of getting the right players to be at their peak at the 2011 World Cup.

It won’t be a crime to lose a Test in the next six months if the planning is obvious and the identification is as definite. If De Villiers plays what is a team for the future in certain Tests, it has to include the type of players who have forced their way into Super Rugby at a young age or have the skills to replace a Test incumbent who won’t be around in England in 2015.

This season allows for selection identification with a difference; two squads for two World Cups and this also gives De Villiers an advantage should he want to continue post 2011. Having worked with the next tier of Test player for two years has to be a magnet to continued employment.

And I don’t think De Villiers should be judged simply on winning the World Cup. It’s too much of a lottery. His greater judgement should be from the players he picks, the quality of the rugby played, the improvement of the individual and results that bring more champagne than flat beer.

There’s enough in the current playing pool to alternate Test sides, but this can only be sold to the rugby public if there’s conviction that when Victor Matfield, John Smit and Bryan Habana, for example, don’t play, the three who replace them will be there in 2015.

Playing rugby in South Africa and coaching South Africa has never been as exciting. The demands and expectation will never allow for mediocrity and failure at the expense of building, but in this country we don’t need to build or transform and expect to fail.

White proved it when he selected nine black players in his match 22 that beat a full-strength Wallabies side 33-20 at Ellis Park in 2005. The Bok line-up, laughed off as a political gesture to former president Nelson Mandela, led 33-8 and with a bit more experience could have put 50 past the Wallabies.

The failure of that victory was how few of those nine black players made it to the World Cup two years later. De Villiers has a test case he can refer to and learn from.

Black players in this country win South Africa more Tests than they have ever lost and when the right young white and black players have been identified, played and trusted, they have not failed.

There’s so much to be bullish about this international season, but it’s what can be assembled as a national squad for 2015 that is even more powerful than the very good squad De Villiers will take to defend the title in New Zealand in 2011. No other country can say that.

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine