Test rugby’s a different beast

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says Super Rugby is not the measure of a Test player.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has got the mix right with his first national training squad of 35. And I know Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will look to a similar balancing act of youth and experience.

Super Rugby form is an indicator but is not the definitive measure of a Test player, and there are those who thrive in the claustrophobic cauldron of Test rugby but never respond to the more forgiving platform that encourages flamboyance and excuses mistakes.

So many players look sensational in Super Rugby and quite the opposite in Test rugby. It is why the good Test coaches and selectors understand what makes a good Test player, but not necessarily what makes a player good.

Jake White always used to say the 15 best players are not necessarily the best 15. As an example, the best 6, 7 and 8 when assessed individually may not necessarily be the best 6, 7 and 8 combination.

Test rugby is more about combinations than individuals, but it is definitely about experience more than youth.

Hansen has rewarded six of the New Zealand U20s from the victorious 2011 Junior World Championship campaign and he has included 21 Test veterans from the World Cup-winning squad, many of whom have been poor in Super Rugby.

Among the poorest performers has been Blues lock Ali Williams. Hansen described the player as an enigma, reminding the critics that while Williams had often been poor in Super Rugby, he had seldom played a poor Test match in 73 internationals.

Super Rugby is a fantastic medium for players to showcase attacking skills. The majority of the matches are played at a frantic pace, tries are scored and taking a risk is applauded.

Attack generally rules the mind over defence (unless you find yourself in the Stormers change room) and the emotional demands can’t be compared with those of a Test match.

The point that there is a difference in mentality when playing Super Rugby and Currie Cup to Test rugby can never be emphasised enough. Some players live only for Test rugby, while others can’t live with the emotional stress that one mistake can often determine a Test result.

There will always be exceptions — players who can adapt their game with ease and prosper in any environment, and the exceptional players dominate Test rugby as 20-year-olds. Think Dan Carter, Frans Steyn and James O’Connor.

Generally players need time to settle into Test rugby and they need the comfort of turning to experience.

White, post 2007’s World Cup success, singled out Os du Randt and Percy Montgomery’s experience as among the most powerful aspects of the Boks.

Experience should also not be confused with a player’s age. Experience at Test level is about a player having regular exposure to mental stress and positively overcoming this stress.

Chiefs loose forward Liam Messam is a very good player. If all one had to assess him on was his provincial and Super Rugby history, he could even be described as an exceptional player. However, he has never been imposing or inspiring in a Test jumper.

The All Blacks midfield pairing of Frank Bunce and Walter Little played for a limited Chiefs team and, because of the quality of their side and the hapless environment, often looked no more than a half-decent centre partnership. Yet for a decade they were considered among the best the world had seen when playing for the All Blacks. They were an example of players whose qualities as Test players were always more seductive than their Super Rugby form.

In this year’s Super Rugby, Hurricanes fullback Andre Taylor and Crusaders centre Robbie Freuen have on occasion looked magnificent, but it was no surprise they weren’t included in the initial All Blacks squad. Both are damn good players, but both have limitations and flaws to their games. These limitations can be excused in Super Rugby, but Taylor’s poor line-kicking game is more significant than his ability to revel on attack in expansive, 40 plays 30 Super Rugby matches.

Meyer, in selecting his first Bok squad, will be accused of Bulls bias, of having a prejudice against attacking mindsets and of not introducing a new generation and a new era.

Those bashing him will use Super Rugby form, league positions and even a Currie Cup performance (team or individual) in justification of their stance. But for the debate to be relevant and insightful there has to be an understanding that it isn’t as simple as the 15-best start and Super Rugby form.

It also isn’t as simple as taking kids in 2012 to build a team that challenges for the 2015 World Cup.

The revolution in Bok rugby will be when the support base recognises the revolution is actually an evolution.