The time is now, two years out from the Rugby World Cup, to draw a line in the sand and say that the players in this country are good enough to play for South Africa.
The Springboks have whitewashed France 3-0 and the coaches deserve credit for making some big decisions. They had the foresight not to pick overseas players, but rather to go with those who were playing in South Africa. And the two overseas-based players that were in the squad played off the bench for most of the series.
The proof is now in the pudding and the emphatic lesson is that we have to reward players who play in South Africa. It pays dividends.
Last season was a poor year, but my goodness can us South Africans go on about it! Pro sport works in cycles. Take the All Blacks in 2009 – everybody forgets about what they term a disaster season, let alone their run of World Cup defeats before that. Every team goes through a bad cycle and, while I believe mistakes were made last year, I think people have milked it a bit.
The Boks are doing well now and there are a couple of obvious reasons for it. The two main things are the fact that coach Allister Coetzee had more time to prepare the team this year, and bringing in the experience of Brendan Venter would have brought a lot of confidence to the group.
I know Brendan first-hand and he’s quite simply an exceptional coach and person. He’s very good at team dynamics, and a huge intellect. He would have helped Allister to get the Boks back to being a robust team and playing to our strengths, and that’s the foundation of South African rugby.
In saying that, France were always going to be tired after coming off a very long French season. We knew they weren’t going to be at their best, but there were some proper players in that team, including Louis Picamoles, who was the pick of the No 8s in Europe, and Virimi Vakatawa, a monster winger.
We can’t now say, “We were playing poor opposition.” These weren’t one or two wins by three points; there were three victories by over 30 points where we limited France to half the number of points. They were resounding wins.
But the real essence of why this Bok team was able to turn the corner, and why we have a chance of getting back to second place in the world rankings, is because we didn’t pick a host of overseas-based players.
How many times over the past two weeks have the experts said we can’t play without Willie le Roux, Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Bismarck du Plessis? I’ve read that Jaco Kriel is too small to play Test rugby, yet he has made the most tackle breaks in Super Rugby, and on Saturday he broke two more.
South Africa benefited massively from the fact that the group of Lions players in the team have played together for so long now. This talks to the science of where the game is going, and how valuable continuity can be.
I agree that a handful of our overseas players are better. There’s no doubt that Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw are world-class players. But it’s not about that – you have to factor in how they fit in with the rest of the team.
There’s a reason why New Zealand and England are one and two in the world rankings and neither pick overseas players. I think we underestimate what makes teams like the All Blacks and England tick. For them, the sum of the parts is bigger than the individual – that being the players having played together and having familiarity and continuity.
When I was coaching the Sharks, I had three players who went abroad because they knew they could still get picked to play for South Africa.
Jaco Kriel is sitting with a big offer to join Wasps. On Saturday, it looked like he loved being a Springbok. I say it’s time to make the players choose between club and country.