Prior to Frans Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis withdrawing from the Springbok squad, this was going to be a column about coach Rassie Erasmus potentially looking to yesterday’s men to solve today’s problems.
Many South African fans are of the opinion that the Boks desperately needed Du Plessis for some fire in the belly of the tight five. I’m not so sure. Du Plessis is 34 and, like the 31-year-old Steyn, plays in the French Top 14 where the rugby is of average standard.
To think this would have been the Du Plessis that smashed international opponents out of his way and have a telling impact at the breakdowns was thinking of him in terms of the player he was in his heyday. He is past that.
As for Steyn, there is often some kind of issue about him. He’s previously even had to take time out to consider his international playing future and, quite frankly, it’s time to put him to bed as an option for the Boks. There would be no justification to pick Steyn at inside centre over either Damian de Allende or André Esterhuizen.
Du Plessis and Steyn are good players, for sure, but there are question marks. The veteran hooker was involved in a bust-up with a Montpellier-teammate earlier this year, and the concern with Steyn comes down to his desire to play Test rugby. The signals from him have been mixed and the last time he really excited me as a Springbok was in 2009, which is many moons ago.
Desire, impact on team spirit and actual output are all issues that come to mind when considering these two veterans, admittedly icons of South African rugby in the modern era.
At the advanced stage of their playing careers, they should be making decisions based on where their bread is buttered. Can anyone say beyond doubt that Bismarck will push through to next year’s World Cup in Japan? No. Can he enjoy another three years in the French league for a guaranteed big salary? Yes.
It is a fact that South Africa does not boast outstanding hookers in the absence of Malcolm Marx. However, there also comes a time when you have to give players a chance to reach the next level. Some flourish once they have a decent taste of Test rugby and who knows what Bongi Mbonambi might be able to achieve given the opportunity.
Akker van der Merwe has been exciting in Super Rugby and while I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of Chiliboy Ralepelle, he was one of those who stood up against Wales in Washington at the weekend.
The above may not inspire confidence that they’ll overwhelm England, and they won’t reach the same heights as Bismarck in his prime, but they do deserve an opportunity.
Esterhuizen, for his part, performed impressively on attack when given the chance against Wales. But perhaps Rassie likes an inside centre that adds to the Boks’ kicking game, and De Allende is apparently an accomplished kicker of the ball. I say apparently because we seldom see him use the skill at the Stormers – Robbie Fleck has been encouraging De Allende to give expression to his full skills set, but he’s not there yet. Maybe Rassie can coax it out of him.
That leaves Duane Vermeulen, Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux as the other overseas-based players in the Bok squad and it will be interesting to see how they go. In the mind-boggling absence of any exceptional local candidates, there is much hope that De Klerk will be able to deliver at scrumhalf. He had a good season with the Sale Sharks in England, but let’s see whether that applies in the Test arena.
Le Roux is probably the best option South Africa have at fullback, but whether he will turn out to be Rassie’s cup of tea in the long term remains to be seen. There is an element of risk about Le Roux and, in my experience, Rassie sticks to a structured and conservative approach with an emphasis on establishing a watertight defence.
Let me hasten to add that conservatism is hardly a sin. The best route is always the one that leads to getting one more point that your opponent. There is no warm, fuzzy feeling in defeat.
As for Duane, he swopped South Africa for France with the reputation as one of the best No 8’s in world rugby. We will soon see whether he’s still playing at that level.
What I like most about Vermeulen’s recall is that his contract at Toulon has run out and he’s consequently not beholden to a French club owner – a species known to put pressure on players to sidestep international rugby in order to protect their investments…