Johnson’s rebound adds to Bok options

RYAN VREDE writes that Ashley Johnson is starting to come into his own 18 months after his premature elevation to the Springboks squad stunted his development.

When Springbok coach Peter de Villiers included Johnson in his squad for the 2009 year-end tour, he told the media that he had earned his place off the back of impressive Currie Cup performances. Johnson had certainly been impressive and looked an international prospect, but he was undoubtedly still raw, and a tour carrying tackle bags did nothing for his confidence or development.

But the political agenda had been set and nothing would derail the transformation train. Johnson would consequently be judged by an unrealistic standard thereafter, and it was no surprise that his form waned in 2010.

Now, having had time to refine his skills, deepen his understanding of his position and role (be that as a blindside flank or number eight) and mature emotionally, Johnson is staking a strong claim for a place in the Springboks’ World Cup squad. He has been central to the Cheetahs’ improvement, and, notably, has shone in matches against the tournament’s elite teams – his most recent eye-catcher coming at the weekend against the Sharks.

However, Johnson is yet another example of a gifted black player done a disservice by premature selection. His team-mate and fellow tourist in 2009, Davon Raubenheimer – who has been consistently impressive – in a group for whom Bulls hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle is the poster boy. All have emerged as standout performers for their respective franchises in 2011. That they’ve recovered after being shackled with a weight of expectation thrust on them by the national selectors says as much about their talent as it does about their character.

Heyneke Meyer, Ralepelle’s coach in 2006 (the year he would debut for the Springboks), was dismayed when the then 19-year-old was drafted into the squad. In discussions with me at the time he detailed an elaborate plan for Ralepelle. He never doubted his talent – indeed he spoke very highly of him – it was the timing that was in question.

He stressed he needed time to nurture Ralepelle – mentally, physically and technically. For this reason he was deeply frustrated to hear of his Springbok selection, but feared being branded a racist if he expressed that frustration. He felt the environment at the time didn’t allow him, a white Afrikaaner, to do so.

My understanding is that Drotske had similar reservations about Johnson’s readiness in 2009. He felt he would be better served focusing on his conditioning and improving his technical skills. He also feared that Johnson lacked the emotional maturity to deal with the disappointment of not playing a Test (as would be the case). It would adversely affect his form, he predicted, and reflecting on Johnson’s ordinary offerings in 2010, he was probably right.

At their franchises, Meyer and Drotske have applied the same approach to promising white players who are in need of further development before being elevated. When they’ve done this they have been applauded as fine man managers. It is a travesty that they feared doing so when it involved two fine but still flawed black players. It is even more tragic that their views on those players were disregarded by the men that mattered because it hindered the creation of what amounted to no more than a transformation illusion.

I have no doubt that there are coaches whose vile racial prejudice has seen them stunt the advancement of black players. Meyer and Drotske are not such men. Both are fine coaches who, in my experience, have always been honest and transparent in their dealings with players.

We must not replicate these errors in future. That would require a willingness from the selectors to be guided by the franchise coach, and for the coach to make an appraisal on a player devoid of any bias. Gio Aplon, Bryan Habana and Juan de Jongh are just three examples of black players who have thrived having been allowed to develop at their own pace. There are none who have been fast-tracked that can boast being instant or consistent success. Hilton Lobberts is a prime example of just how damaging it can be.

What then to make of Johnson’s bid for a ticket to New Zealand? I believe his form warrants selection for the Tri-Nations squad, and it is there that his aptitude must be tested in an extended run. If he exhibits the ability to play at that level, then he could add great value in the loose forward department at the World Cup.

I have concerns about his conditioning, and believe this to be the reason for his inconsistency. However, I would envisage deploying him off the bench in the final quarter against Fiji and Samoa – matches in which those opponents are likely to employ an expansive approach and become increasingly looser as the match wears on – and conditioning would therefore be a non-factor. He would be a potential starter against Namibia. Used in this way, he would offer the selectors and opportunity to keep their first-choice blindside flanks or No 8s fresh without losing a significant amount of quality.

Beyond those matches, I could not accommodate him in my 22. He has limitations when the game is not open, as does Pierre Spies – the man he’d compete for a spot on my bench with – but Spies would edge selection for his superior experience.