Belligerent bolter will lend Boks bite

JON CARDINELLI expects Duane Vermeulen to be named in the World Cup planning group on Wednesday and believes it could be a telling selection in a World Cup year.

The official World Cup group of 50 will only be named in June, but don’t expect it to differ from the ‘planning squad’ named this Wednesday. Coach Peter de Villiers has made it clear that he wants to get the right group of players together as early as possible, and has even scheduled meetings and planning camps for the select few while Super Rugby is still on the go.

This Wednesday’s announcement is thus significant. We already know of 23 players who have made the cut, as De Villiers announced his contracted group of Springboks in late March.

Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, Victor Matfield, JP Pietersen, John Smit, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies were in the original group, while Andries Bekker, Heinrich Brüssow, Bismarck du Plessis, Adrian Jacobs, Tendai Mtawarira, Wynand Olivier, Danie Rossouw, Morné Steyn, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Jannie du Plessis, CJ van der Linde and Gurthrö Steenkamp were only recently handed one-year contracts.

The Bok coach will name between 45 and 50 players on Wednesday, and what this means is that as many as 27 places are up for grabs. De Villiers will make a statement with the players he includes, but he will also make a statement with the players he leaves out.

The contracted group itself deserves closer scrutiny. One can only believe that De Villiers made a promise to Adi Jacobs when they were at the Valke all those years ago, because his apparent guaranteed selection has very little to do with recent rugby exploits. At least Wynand Olivier has played for the Boks in the last year, but his performances have been so poor, you would have expected him to drop out of the World Cup reckoning. Unbelievably, he’s been awarded a Bok contract in a defining year. Go figure.

De Villiers is likely to call on many players that have been in the Bok mix over the past three years. Locks like Alistair Hargreaves and Flip van der Merwe will make the cut, and loose forwards like Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts and Keegan Daniel surely deserve to be part of the larger squad. What’s less clear is whether the Bulls’ loosies deserve spots ahead of their Stormers counterparts.

It’s not a provincial argument but a national one. Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegmann featured for the Boks in 2010 without making any great impact. Francois Louw was a key figure in the Boks’ Tests against Wales, Italy and France, and then was unceremoniously dumped after one sub-standard showing in the Tri-Nations. Louw has shown good form in the 2011 Super Rugby competition, and is certainly among the elite players in the country.

One man has been among the elite for the past three seasons, although the absence of a national call-up would suggest otherwise. Picking Duane Vermeulen for the World Cup planning group is a no-brainer, and he could play a big role at the World Cup. He provides the abrasive alternative to Spies the Boks have been searching for, that is a No 8 that drives opposition players back on defence and makes good ground with ball in hand. If the Boks include men like Vermeulen and Alberts in their final World Cup squad, they will improve their chances of winning the tournament.

Some will suggest that Ashley Johnson deserves a place, but this season has shown him to be a liability. He contributes with some powerful runs and gets through a lot of work, but his high error rate has cost the Cheetahs matches. There is no reason why he should be included ahead of the Bulls’ loose forwards, let alone the form men at the Sharks and Stormers.

I fear that politicians will demand that Ricky Januarie get a look-in, even though he’s unlikely to travel to New Zealand in September. The overweight scrumhalf hasn’t been contracted to the Boks, a sure sign he is not in the World Cup plans. He’s not the first-choice No 9 at the Stormers, and to pick him for the Boks would smack of window dressing.

Sarel Pretorius is a player who’s impressed in a struggling Cheetahs side, and Charl McLeod was a late call-up for the Springboks’ 2010 end-of-year tour. If it’s a toss up between the two, De Villiers needs to show some consistency in picking the latter, who has to date enjoyed a solid Super Rugby competition.

McLeod’s halfback partner Pat Lambie will also make the squad, but there is another player who comes into the flyhalf equation. Butch James has confirmed his move back to South Africa in May, a fact that confirms he is in the World Cup mix. James is the Boks’ best bet at flyhalf, as he not only has the experience but the ability to switch between a conservative and attacking game plan.

De Villiers has a fourth flyhalf option in Ruan Pienaar, who excelled at No 10 for the Boks in late 2008 and in the 2009 British & Irish Lions series. Pienaar has been alternating between 9 and 10 at Irish club Ulster, and has to date produced some match-winning performances with the boot.

Frans Steyn is the other overseas-based player guaranteed of selection, and his return could solve the Boks’ problems at fullback. Zane Kirchner will be picked for the planning group, but doesn’t deserve to go to the World Cup.

As South Africa’s best attacking player, Gio Aplon should travel to New Zealand. If Aplon pays more attention to his kicking game, he can provide a good alternative to Steyn. He has a big boot and it’s a shame that the development of this area of his game has been neglected in the last few seasons.

It’s great to see JP Pietersen finding some form, and right now he’d be my favourite to start at No 14 for the Boks. Bjorn Basson is prime candidate to replace Bryan Habana, although it is a foregone conclusion that the veteran will be taken to the World Cup.

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