Grooming future Baby Boks

This year’s SA Schools side was selected with the IRB Junior World Championship in mind.

There were eyebrows raised at the composition of the SA Schools team named at the end of Craven Week in Welkom on Saturday, particularly at the inclusion of just two Free Staters in the starting line up (there are another four on the bench), in view of the team’s emphatic 42-21 victory over Western Province in the final game of the week.

The last game of the Craven Week is traditionally contested by who the organisers consider to be the two top teams at the tournament, making the winners the unofficial champions.

Western Province have five representatives in the national schools squad, with four of those in the starting XV.

The criteria for selecting the SA Schools team, we were told, were different this year and, according to Saru manager of high performance, Herman Masimla, the aim was not merely to reward players who shone at the week itself, but to identify a group that is capable of going on the represent the country with success at the IRB (U20) Junior World Championship in two years time.

The senior national selectors – Pieter Jooste, Ian McIntosh et al – were at the week and they met with the SA Schools selectors every evening. The upshot, apparently, was an SA Schools team that is a hybrid of recognising performance and discovering potential.

The other role of the national selectors was to name a high-performance squad of 32 U18 players who will attend a training camp later this month and play three matches against international opposition – 19 of the 22 SA Schools players are in the group.

So, was the SA Schools selection fair? I guess the Free Staters have reason to feel aggrieved, given their win over Province, but the team would basically have been picked well before the final game was done and dusted. And Western Province were by far the more impressive of the two in their earlier matches. They beat the highly-rated Golden Lions side 20-3 on day one and then smashed Eastern Province 58-17. Free State beat Border 35-13 and then looked quite ordinary in their 30-20 win over KwaZulu-Natal in their second outing.

The star of the Free State side was undoubtedly flyhalf Johan Goosen, and he is there, as is centre William Small-Smith, who is the captain. The Western Province representatives are fullback Craig Barry – possibly the standout player at the week – winger Jean-Paul Lewis, flank Sikhumbuzo Notshe and prop Steven Kitshoff. It would be difficult to make a case for the exclusion of any of those.

The surprise selections were the preference of Affies No 8 Nardus van der Watt ahead of his Grey counterpart, Neill Jordaan; the inclusion of Bulls scrumhalf Poerie van Rooyen ahead of a number of good candidates, including Free State’s Kevin Luiters and the reselection of Border centre Andile Jho, who had a quiet week.

There would also have been some surprise at the inclusion of Valke lock Ruan Botha and KwaZulu-Natal flank Khaya Majola. Botha’s selection clearly has to do with future potential – at 2.02m he was the tallest lock at the week and is clearly going to grow into a giant, while Westville Boys High’s Majola was the destroyer in chief in his side’s good showing against Free State.

It’s difficult to discuss selection without referring to the old quota chestnut, but it seems that in this case anyhow the promise to select on merit has been kept.

The way you can see that is by looking at the last four or five names in the 22. In the days when the selectors were forced to pick 10 or 11 players of colour, you inevitably saw them down there – among the last reserves chosen. That hasn’t happened this time and the number of previously disadvantaged players in the squad – eight – doesn’t conform to any quota sum recently imposed.

So, who can consider himself unlucky not to be selected? Apart from Jordaan, probably KZN hooker Senzo Mtshali, who has been the engine in the devastating Glenwood pack this year, and Golden Lions flyhalf Marais Schmidt, who will go far in the game and was unfortunate to play in the same year as Goosen.

And as for inspired selections: Eastern Province hooker Jason Thomas is from Uitenhage, and has all the menacing presence you will expect from front row forwards from that part of the country; while Boland’s Leroy Bitterhout showed himself to be a superb finisher whose future, one suspects, lies in the sevens, rather than the 15-man, game.

By Theo Garrun