JON CARDINELLI writes that backing experimental selections at Twickenham would have been better than sending the first-stringers out to avenge wounded pride.
The Boks broke a 10-year losing streak in Dublin, a victory that was important in the World Cup context. They picked up more psychological points in Cardiff the very next week. It wasn’t pretty, but the Bok had struck two big blows before a defining 2011 season.
Then Scotland brought them to earth. Many people lamented the end of a Grand Slam opportunity when in the greater scheme of things, the Grand Slam should never have been as important as building towards the World Cup.
Last Saturday’s game was a waste with Peter de Villiers neglecting to back more fringe players in a starting capacity. Nothing was learned in terms of how the second-stringers could handle the starting responsibilities. Those lessons would have been worth the risk of defeat.
But De Villiers blew that opportunity, and failed in his own personal ambition to stay on course for a career-saving Grand Slam. He’s blown another opportunity ahead of this Saturday, picking his strongest side yet again, as a win against England could be what keeps him in the job.
If the Boks beat England, they will head back to South Africa with a scorecard that reads three Test wins from four. It may be considered a pass in the results department, but when it comes to developing new and exciting talent before a World Cup year, the head coach and the selectors have failed.
Lwazi Mvovo has been rushed into the Bok starting side due to Bryan Habana’s tour-ending injury, and wouldn’t be starting if Habana was fit. Pat Lambie has been limited to three second-half cameos on this tour, while Francois Hougaard has also been used erratically.
Willem Alberts has produced two powerful bench performances that suggest he may be South Africa’s new super-sub in 2011, but he deserved a start in the Scotland fixture. Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies has done nothing but carry tackle bags, and would have been better served conditioning for an important Super Rugby tournament.
That the Boks would embark on a Grand Slam tour a year before the World Cup is a bungle at administrative level. No team should be expected to send full-strength squads to the north after a full year of rugby, especially just 11 months before the all-important tournament. This should be a time for testing new combinations and blooding new players.
Somehow this tour has become more about results and preserving De Villiers’s job rather than developing and strengthening new combinations. De Villiers missed another chance to try something different when he named his match 22 on Tuesday. He listed conditions as an explanation, but why bring the other players to the northern hemisphere if you’re not going to trust them to deal with the weather? Sending them on in difficult conditions midway through the second half doesn’t help their development or the synergy of the team, and it’s this kind of mismanagement and lack of common sense that’s characterised a disappointing tour.
Lambie should have been entrusted with a starting opportunity from the outset. If the Boks were really adamant about picking up the psychological points against World Cup opponents Ireland and Wales, then you could understand the decision to stick with Morne Steyn at No 10 as well as several other safe selections. But there was no sense in sending the seniors out against Scotland.
There’s even less reason to send them out against England. The Poms are hitting some form, and there’s a good chance a full-strength Bok side could come short yet again. A loss at Twickenham for the Boks’ first-choice team would render the tour a failure, as nothing new would have been learned, and two big defeats would have been suffered. But if De Villiers backed more youngsters in this final fixture and they performed (or alternatively, fared poorly) then he would know what he had in those players.
If there’s an argument that it’s unfair to ask players like Lambie and Jantjies to play now, it calls into question why De Villiers selected them to tour in the first place. Most of the fringe players will get a chance against the Barbarians on 4 December, but this fixture cannot be used to gauge a player’s aptitude for Test rugby.