O’Sullivan: Coetzee’s Springboks all about rugby, less about racism & politics

By David O’Sullivan

David O'Sullivan
David O’Sullivan

Allister Coetzee’s first Springbok team was hailed by SA Rugby as “the start of a new era for SA rugby”. And that’s quite right. Gone are the selection processes of some of his predecessors who would promise their favourite players a Springbok berth based on past experience and continued loyalty. This often resulted in a team carrying a few injuries or players who were a season past their sell-by date.

Coetzee put aside any loyalties, made no promises, owed no favours and simply picked a team based on current form. That appears to have ushered in not only a new era in SA rugby, but a new era in thoughtful analysis and level-headed reaction from SA rugby fans.

The vitriolic and abusive diatribe that usually pollutes comments sections on social media has been mercifully replaced with a more sober-minded reaction to Coetzee’s selections, which makes being a rugby fan a lot more palatable. The team announcement could have degenerated into a foul-mouthed racial spat about what are perceived as the demerits of transformation. But it hasn’t. The informed reaction is more about rugby and less about racism and politics.

One of the prominent debates is around the lack of experience in the side. There are ten uncapped players, and 12 players who have less than 20 Test caps. Understandably, the person attracting most of the “inexperienced” argument is Garth April, who has only played 8 games for the Sharks. It’s a valid argument – a coach surely wants players who know what it’s like to play in the stratosphere of Test rugby.

But is that the be-all and end-all of being a Springbok? Experience is certainly a big advantage, but speed, fitness, talent and cool-headedness are also major requirements. Every player who’s ever worn the Bok jersey has lacked experience – they all start uncapped. And they’ve all been deemed worthy of their place because they’re damn fine rugby players. That’s why Coetzee picked April – he has composure, a good kicking game, a good running game. He’s a damn fine rugby player oozing loads of potential. So why not give him a chance?

April will be fortunate to get some game time in the series against Ireland. He’s the third-choice flyhalf with Elton Jantjies and Pat Lambie ahead of him. If Jantjies is still injured for the first Test, April might find himself on the reserve bench and in with a chance of a run in the final 10 minutes of the Test. It will be enough to give him a psychological boost, allow him to wear his Bok blazer with pride instead of carrying it over his arm as dictated by tradition, and make him hungry to play for the Boks and raise his game.

With regards to the players with less than 20 caps, most of them are experienced Super Rugby players. The step-up from Currie Cup rugby to Test rugby is huge. What about the step-up from Super Rugby to Test rugby? The pressure of playing for your country is immense, but the intensity of the game, confronting the best New Zealand and Australian players, the debilitating effects of long-distance travel, the foreign crowds and foreign stadiums are common to both forms of the game. A player might lack Test experience, but if he’s got Super Rugby experience, he is surely battle-hardened and battle-ready.

Experience is certainly something you need in your captain, and Adriaan Strauss is the best man for the job. He’s played 54 times for South Africa, 23 times in the starting line-up and the rest off the bench as he and Bismarck du Plessis juggled the hooker position. He’s captained the Cheetahs, is the current Bulls captain, and has been vice-captain of the Springboks. Is there a better qualified man for the job in the squad? Coetzee might have considered Duane Vermeulen for the captaincy, since the eighth-man was the captain of the Stormers when Coetzee was in charge. But the coach made it clear he wanted a home-based captain, possibly because Toulon have been a bit iffy about releasing Vermeulen for Springbok duty. He didn’t need the headache of not having his captain available if Vermeulen had a contractual obligation in France and the lure of the Euro proved more inviting.

Coetzee is off to a good start. The squad represents the best on offer in South African rugby at the moment. His captain is well-respected. The politicians are leaving him alone. The fans are not baying for blood. Let the series begin.

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