A youthful Blitzboks side was lauded for a third-placed finish at the Hong Kong leg of the World Sevens Series, with Neil Powell’s A-listers reserved for what turned out to be a disappointing Commonwealth Games tournament on Australia’s Gold Coast at the weekend.
Under the guidance of stand-in coach Marius Schoeman, first-time Blitzboks captain Dewald Human and a squad including five debutants succeeded in maintaining the reigning champions’ lead in the standings.
Selvyn Davids, with four tournaments for the Blitzies under his belt, was named the best player in Hong Kong, and pundits similarly hailed the performances of next-genners like nine-capped Stedman Gans and 18-year-old Muller du Plessis. Seabelo Senatla who?!
Three legs of the 2017/18 World Sevens Series remain and, with the 7s World Cup set to take place in July, Blitzboks boss Neil Powell will again call upon the likes of Davids to deputise for his regulars before the Las Vegas showpiece. The much-vaunted SA Sevens system proves rookies can star on the big stage and, if planned professionally, weakened lineups shouldn’t hamper a team’s momentum or long-term goals.
In 2007, former Springbok coach Jake White selected an under-strength side for their Australasian leg of the Tri-Nations. He looked to assess his squad depth, but mostly to rest his frontline players ahead of the World Cup in France.
The Boks lost 25-17 in Australia and were beaten 33-6 in New Zealand, and White was slammed for fielding a “B team” that critics said disrespected the Wallabies and the All Blacks, devalued the competition, and damaged the Bok brand.
The Boks, with the aid of “B team” players like JP Pietersen and Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, won the World Cup, vindicating White’s decision. His three predecessors, likely out of fear of being vilified or fired, never adopted a similar approach when the opportunity presented itself in the Tri-Nations, Rugby Championship or end-of-year tours.
There is pressure on new coach Rassie Erasmus to fix the Boks in 2018 on the back of two disappointing seasons. His first Test in charge – the once-off Test against Wales in Washington, D.C. on June 2 – leaves Erasmus with barely enough time to work with the team and inculcate a game plan. And a few “alignment camps” during Super Rugby are unlikely to bridge the gap.
Erasmus, who served as a technical advisor to White in ’07, should select a Bok B team made up of players designated for a reserve role in the June series against England, and mix them with overseas-based pros and promising youngsters who could do with the Test exposure on Capitol Hill, while his core squad settles at base camp in Mzansi.
A successful trial-run of a second-string Bok lineup in the US will embolden management to make similar team selections in future, especially in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup.
The old joke is that the only side capable of beating the All Blacks is their B team. Excluding the scrumhalf position, Erasmus is blessed with enough players – home and abroad – to field an A, B and C team for the Boks. Now it’s just about having the courage to follow through.
Devin Hermanus works in the SA media industry, can drive automatic and manual, visits shopping malls for the free WiFi, and deadlifts his own weight off the couch. Follow him on Twitter: @DevinMyles11
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