Rassie’s revolution light on leaders

Simnikiwe Xabanisa

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…

- Simnikiwe Xabanisa

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  • Greg Shark

    …”….when Skinstad refused a spot on the bench for the final against England in favour of Bulls counterpart Wikus van Heerden….”…..
    Wouldn’t that have been nice if he’d done the same for Teichmann! Except that injured he toured in place of the gifted captain Teichmann and history tells us the Boks did not reign supreme. Many argue that had Teichmann toured and played the Boks would have taken the world title!

    • Jay

      True. Even Mallett himself has questioned if that was his greatest failure; not recognising how great an influence Teichmann’s leadership had on the players.

    • John Comyn

      Yes one wonders if The Sharks supporters will ever get over the Skinstad/Teichmann issue. It just goes on & on & on & on & on …..

      • Greg Shark

        nope, we will never get over the injustices visited on our glorious team …..Teichmann or the SR final ’07 …. the microism of that today is displayed in the universal condemnation of refing decisions which replayed in the minds of all supporters world wide….

      • Ferdinand Botha

        lol agreed. It’s the same when you mention the 07 super rugby final :)

  • Gazza

    I have to disagree on Ashwin. in 2007 he was still 26 years old. However, I agree that his career was plagued by injury and ‘m not sure if he ever got another Bok cap after the 2007 RWC.

  • Ferdinand Botha

    What Rassie needs:

    A back-up for Handre Pollard
    A back up for Duane Vermeulen
    Warren Skinny legs to be injury free for more than a week
    A back up for Faf
    Better flanks
    Eben to be fit again = more leadership and depth at locks
    Kitschoff to start and not be warming the bench, he is the best in his position
    A centre combo that actually works
    Wings that can defend

    We have just a little more than a year left before the world cup. Beating England was a step in the right direction. But we can’t afford to end 3rd of 4th in this year’s RC.

    • Greg Shark

      so you mean just another team….?

  • Con Joubert

    Warren, Eben, Willie, Handre all there for the Championship, and add Duane for World Cup. I don’t get this article.

  • Con Joubert

    Sorry, and Beast there as well !

  • Nick

    OK, let me understand this right, bring in a few lekker ouens to keep the beer flowing and jokes running. Oh! Also pay them the full whack of a Bok contract….OH! And don’t even expect them to play! Skinstadt is no fool. Damn right he would give up his place on the bench for a better player rather than exposing his long since evaporated ability.

    LOL…..Same principle applied to John Smit when he became the CEO for the sharks! Lekker man! Fire the dude who’s done a good job for years and bring the old captain in..’such a good ou’, In no time he fires John Plumtree and sends him packing to NZ with not even a trace of shame. Then he brings his old buddy Jake in to ‘sort things out’. Old Jake gets the team playing like it’s the good old 1950’s again. [Smit and White splash their handsome faces all over the Sharks website at the time like they were the main attraction. Not the players or the game], telling fans he needs time before they are playing like a 70’s french team. What the fans don’t know is Jake has no intention to stay beyond what will give him a fair shot at a nice pay-off from the Sharks. Sharks fans are generallyb thick about rugga anyway and simply do not grasp the Common Knowledge that Jake has never produced/coached dynamic rugby in his life, and predictably left Smitty in the lurch minus the said trophies and champagne rugby he assured everybody he was distilling on the side. Next thing you know Smitty has been shoved aside for general lack of depth and ability. At the same time Smitty can’t understand why nobody in Durbs feels even vaguely sorry for him.

    Outcome is sharks abandon the experience and loyalty they had, lose countless rands to ensure the lifestyles of mentioned individuals above.

    We all know the story. Good old nepotism and exploitation SA rugby style. We don’t call it that though, we just see it as helping our buddies out!

    You could not make it up.

  • Wesley

    Although I agree with the sentiment of the article, the explanation is flawed. We need professionals plying their trade as frontline players in their respective unions to step up in the Bok environment, not hangers-on in their twilight. Although I still think Schalk was a good move in having insight on the English but don’t think he will be further part of Rassies plans to “cheerleader” the team or anything. Kolisi needs to further develop as captain, I would rather give Pollard the Bulls reigns not only when Odendaal is injured. Warren needs to come back proper. Ruan Botha is not captain material at Sharks, Beast wasn’t a bad captain and in terms of Bok players he would fit best, but although not in Bok colours, vd Walt is for me the best leader in that group. Theres bit of a void there as a proper leader. We need more leaders standing up playing frontline week in and week out to develop the leadership culture and seniority and thus filter into the Bok team.

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