RYAN VREDE writes that Heyneke Meyer’s first Springbok squad sent a discouraging message to diminutive players.
Over the years of my professional association with Meyer he has consistently spoken of four primary criteria when assessing players. Strength and size are the most pertinent attributes for the purposes of this piece. The absence of those attributes is primarily what precluded players of the ilk of Gio Aplon and Juan de Jongh from Springbok selection.
It is a throwback to the Jake White era, where players with game-breaking skills but who were of a relatively diminutive constitution, were consistently overlooked. Brent Russell suffered most at the time and his omission – despite an extended period in which he impressed in Super Rugby – was a constant matter of debate.
White famously argued that a talented big guy would always trump a talent little one. Meyer shares that view.
This is not a judgement on that view. Indeed, through numerous conversations with him I’ve come to understand the rationale that guides that thinking. And neither am I suggesting that Meyer has a complete disregard for smaller players. He is a great admirer of Aplon and De Jongh’s attacking play, but has serious reservations about their ability to consistently dominate the tackle fight on attack and defence (characteristics he values highly and ones that are central to the success of his game plan) and fears that at Test level Aplon would be targeted as being vulnerable to high kicks, whether deployed at wing or fullback.
What then of a player like Bjorn Basson who at 84kg and 1.84m doesn’t appear to fit the physical bill? Meyer reasons his exceptional aerial ability and appreciable speed is crucial in the context of his kick-chase game plan and makes up for what he lacks in size. Morne Steyn, no giant himself, is saved by his goal and tactical-kicking ability. Had he not been injured Johann Goosen would have made the squad because Meyer believes he has an X factor.
Aplon and De Jongh are not seen to have such redeeming features. This should be concerning if you are a South African backline player (particularly if you play in the back three) that lacks a quality or qualities (by Meyer’s standard) to circumvent your physical limitations. Your chances are even more remote if you’re a forward of modest build. Keegan Daniel’s selection is evidence that Meyer is not closed to such selections. But Daniel, not in Meyer’s plans until very recently, has had to be consistently excellent for the Sharks to advance his cause (his performance against the Stormers at Kings Park a fortnight ago sealed his inclusion). Whether he sees any game time during the England series remains to be seen but he almost certainly won’t be a starter if he does.
It would be remiss not to ask whether Aplon and De Jongh have in fact done enough to feel aggrieved at their exclusion? Certainly the Stormers’ attacking struggles have compromised them, but even so, Aplon hasn’t scaled the heights that earned him the 2010 Players’ Player of the Year award and De Jongh has failed to replicate the form he showed in his formative years. Neither have let themselves or their team down, but equally neither have really made a granitic case for inclusion.
The wee fellas in Super Rugby will know they have to be consistently outstanding to catch Meyer’s eye. It is unfair, but Meyer’s conviction on this issue won’t wane for the foreseeable future. He loves the hulks and dazzling dwarves face a period in the Test wilderness unless they add attributes to their armoury that would make them impossible to ignore.
Springbok 32-man squad for June Test series:
Backs – Bjorn Basson, Jean de Villiers, JJ Engelbrecht, Bryan Habana, Francois Hougaard, Elton Jantjies, Zane Kirchner, Patrick Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo, Wynand Olivier, Ruan Pienaar, JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn, Morne Steyn, Jano Vermaak.
Forwards – Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Ryan Kankowski, Juandre Kruger, Werner Kruger, Beast Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen, Jacques Potgieter, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Pierre Spies, Adriaan Strauss, Flip van der Merwe, Franco van der Merwe.