Selected on merit: South African back rower has been a rock for the Boks (photo: Getty Images)
By Jeremy Guscott
EVER since South Africa adopted a quota system for national team selection it was always going to throw up tough challenges in terms of getting their best team on the field. Those difficulties were highlighted this autumn when the Springboks were overwhelmed by Ireland and then lost to Wales.
Add to that the problem of so many of their best players having moved overseas and the issue of South Africa being competitive at elite level has grown. South African rugby has enormous depth, but the reality is that their best players are not playing for the Springboks.
Despite victories over France and Italy, the loss to the Welsh was treated as a national disaster by many South African pundits. Some said that being beaten by Wales – who were dubbed “chronic losers” against South Africa – left the Springbok brand at its lowest point, and others that Allister Coetzee’s team is the poorest in the country’s history.
There is a place for sentiment and tradition in pro sport, but South Africa will have to be aware that it does not last indefinitely. At the moment they are struggling to live with New Zealand, England, Ireland, Australia, Wales, and probably Scotland, and their lack of competitiveness after years at the top table is a worry.
In some ways I feel sorry for the South Africans, but going down the quota route was always a mistake. They have to get rid of quotas and pick people on ability. That includes picking them from overseas if they want to compete at the highest level again.
Otherwise, nothing will change.
There are still some great stories in South African rugby, and one of them involves Siya Kolisi, the Springbok back row forward.
Kolisi grew up in the impoverished township of Zwide on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, but after impressing scouts at a youth tournament when he was 12 he was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School, where he played in the first XV. He progressed to play for South Africa U20s in 2010/2011, and Western Province, and won his first Springbok cap in 2013 and his 28th against Wales last weekend.
Kolisi is there on merit, and when Eben Etzebeth was replaced during the game against Wales he was promoted to captain. The good news is that Kolisi is using his high profile to help black and coloured youngsters to do what he has done, and is a great role model. What is also important is that he has been backing up his position with strong performances on the pitch.
The other side of the coin is that you have to ask questions about some of the other selection decisions made by head coach Coetzee. For instance, what was he doing taking off fly-half Handre Pollard in Cardiff and bringing on an inconsistent player like Elton Jantjies?
Coetzee has to make good selection decisions, and the pressure on him is mounting because a former great rugby nation is hanging on by its fingernails to Tier One status.
You have to be bright and intelligent to survive in pro sport, and the political interference that seems to come with the territory in South African rugby does not help.
Yet, the try that winger Warrick Gelant scored against Wales was reminiscent of Bryan Habana, and they have a couple of strong, resilient centres in François Venter and Jesse Kriel. The only shortcoming with that midfield partnership is that it lacks a bit of vision, and that’s something that needed fixing with good coaching earlier in their careers.
South Africa’s results have not been totally disastrous this season, with two draws against Australia in the Rugby Championship and two wins against Argentina, and with all their challenges and problems I still can’t quite believe that they are fifth in the world rankings. However, the loss to Italy last year shows how South Africa are now fragile in a way that they never have been before.
With 350 top South African players in Europe and Japan the Springboks no longer have the luxury of picking their third choice – these days it’s more like having to make do with their twentieth choice.
Imagine what having just their Premiership contingent of Vincent Koch, Michael Rhodes (Saracens), Willie Le Roux, Nizaam Carr, Juan de Jongh, Ashley Johnson (Wasps), Cobus Reinach, Nic Groom (Northampton), Demetri Catrakilis (Harlequins), Francois Louw (Bath), Ruan Ackermann (Gloucester) and Faf de Klerk (Sale) would do for them, let alone those South Africans in the Top 14 and PRO14.
At the moment Etzebeth is a rallying point, and in the 2015 World Cup I thought he and his second row partner, Lood de Jaeger, could be the launchpad for South Africa to rebuild – but that will happen only if they pick from strength by selecting their overseas stars.
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