In 2007, former Springbok coach Jake White took two players to the Rugby World Cup in France with no significant on-field playing roles earmarked for them.
With respect to Bob Skinstad and Ashwin Willemse, their careers – which had promised so much but had that potential cruelly snuffed out by injury – were by then, to all intents and purposes, finished. But White had brought them along for important off-field roles.
Skinstad, a thoroughbred eighthman, was on board to be the team’s resident cheerleader, because he’d never seen a half-empty pint in his life. And, while recent events have painted Willemse as a little curmudgeonly, he was roped in as living, breathing, proof of taking the worst life could offer and remaining standing – few people can deliver Al Pacino’s “inches” speech about triumphing over adversity with more credibility than the former Bok wing.
White’s gambit paid off when Skinstad refused a spot on the bench for the final against England in favour of Bulls counterpart Wikus van Heerden, who would secure the Boks’ victory by earning the last ruck penalty of the match.
Looking at Rassie Erasmus’ promising revolution as the current Springbok coach, if it is missing something obvious it is experienced players like Skinstad and Willemse to add not-so discernible value.
Erasmus tried to address this by initially adding Bismarck du Plessis, Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and Willie le Roux along the spine of his first selected squad. With Du Plessis and Steyn not pitching up for what remains mysterious injuries, Erasmus then reached for the retired Schalk Brits.
The need for more leaders in the team was evident in the first two Tests. Having a Vermeulen in the starting XV to help team captain Siya Kolisi talk the team down from the ledge after conceding early leads was the difference between losing and winning against Wales and England respectively.
With Vermeulen reportedly unavailable for the Rugby Championship, someone will need to fill that void because we all know how rudderless the Boks became after they lost then-captain Warren Whiteley this time last year.
Ironically enough, Whiteley, who happens to play the same position as Vermeulen, albeit differently, has recently returned from injury himself, meaning he’s the best candidate for the job. But this is less about the here and now than it is about putting together a World Cup squad with enough experience to not outsource all the leadership to Kolisi.
As a result, Erasmus has a few tightropes to negotiate.
The first is to use the 14 Tests he has left before the World Cup to expose the youngsters to enough high-pressure rugby so as to gain experience while also using said games to sift out the old hands who’ll still have it in them to be big in Japan.
The second is not to get seduced by nostalgia or potential like the rest of us tend to. Few countries are as beholden to older players’ past deeds, or swept away by the unproven promise of younger players, than South Africa – if we’re not being wistful we’re being ageist, and there’s no middle ground.
The question is which older or experienced players Erasmus must go for to help shore up his leadership group. There have been recent suggestions of going back to JP Pietersen, Steyn will always come up because he’s a firm favourite with the fans – despite the fact that he hasn’t played well for the Boks since the 2011 World Cup – and Du Plessis was already supposed to have come back.
The other thing making Erasmus’ life tricky is that, unlike White’s term, when he could pick Skinstad and Willemse without really meaning to play them in the big games because he had a designated first and second XV, there is no longer space in a squad for cerebral passengers who don’t have the legs to practice what they preach out on the field.
This means the retired Brits is probably already a casualty, which will force a rethink on what was an out-of-the-box idea by Erasmus. The Bok coach has so many fine lines to tread over the next year or so, but that’s why he has an unprecedented six-year contract…