Back in 1999, when Rassie Erasmus was a player in the Springbok squad that tried unsuccessfully to defend the World Cup title won in 1995, one of the big talking points was an instruction to coach Nick Mallett to apply “merit with bias” to his selections.
In basic terms, it meant that if there was a black player vying with a white player for a particular position in the Bok team, and they were roughly of the same ability, the selectors should go for the black player.
The perception filtered from the politicians down through Mallett’s SARFU bosses of what was needed is what caused the controversy that many who were involved still think derailed that World Cup campaign.
Stefan Terblanche had built up some experience and had been part of a winning Tri-Nations effort the year before, but Breyton Paulse had announced himself for the Stormers in that year’s Super Rugby and for many media people, large sections of the public and SARFU officials there wasn’t enough between Terblanche and Paulse to justify Paulse’s non-selection.
Then when Deon Kayser scored three tries as a replacement in a big win over Italy, the clamour intensified to the point where SARFU chief executive Rian Oberholzer flew to Cardiff to address the coaches and players two days before the “summer Test” against Wales. His message was that there would be no more all-white Bok teams.
Nearly 20 years later, and now ensconced as Bok coach, Erasmus clearly understands why Oberholzer took the action he did, but he will probably recall the incident with distaste because of the disruption that may have contributed to South Africa’s first ever defeat to Wales.
It is Erasmus’ turn to apply merit with bias criteria in his selection, though this time not to meet a transformation agenda. He needs to apply it to the selection of overseas-based players. Judging from what he has said in the media recently, he may already be applying a type of merit with bias philosophy.
For instance, last week he used the flyhalves as an example of why he might be sounding out a player like France-based Pat Lambie. He asked what would happen if three of the home-based pivots all got injured before the June international break, and as it did happen last year, there shouldn’t be a need to argue the point with him.
If there are injuries, it will help to have Lambie available. He has played more than 50 Tests so he has done the time. He would be a positive addition to the squad in terms of what he could impart to the younger players.
Where merit with bias, or to be more precise, “bias in favour of home-based players”, should be applied would be if there was a local player of similar ability and boasting equal experience.
A good example of where Erasmus might apply this thinking is at hooker. It hasn’t been a secret that he was keen to re-engage Bismarck du Plessis and there was good logic behind his thinking. Du Plessis has been one of South Africa’s legendary hookers and could fulfill a useful mentorship role to the young players around him if selected as back-up to Malcolm Marx.
But that was before Adriaan Strauss started playing the best rugby of his career and before the former Bok captain started talking about coming out of international retirement if he could make a positive contribution.
Strauss doesn’t give away much, if anything, to Du Plessis in terms of ability, experience and standing among the players around him, plus he started the season on the Bulls’ bench so we know he can be comfortable as a back-up player. We can’t be sure about that when it comes to the ultra-competitive Du Plessis.
The mentorship role is important to Erasmus and rightly so, but as the home-based Strauss can offer what Du Plessis does, to me that selection is a no-brainer. Provided Strauss is available of course.
You may ask why there is a need to limit the number of expats in the Bok team. Why not load the side with overseas based players if they are good enough? It isn’t as simple as that and it goes way beyond just the primary objective of the initial drive to limit selection of overseas based players as a deterrent to young players who might be considering joining the exodus.
The build-up to the 2016 Test against England at Twickenham, when Allister Coetzee admitted how disruptive it was suddenly having five overseas-based players added to a squad that had been working together for the previous two weeks, is a case in point.
Overseas-based players are owned by their clubs and don’t get to participate in training camps, it is hard to manage their conditioning and to oversee the game work-ons and improvements in the same way that you can with home-based players. At this time when Erasmus and his assistants are working so closely with the Super Rugby coaches on meeting the Bok requirements, it makes no sense to load the team with players based in France, England or Japan. It is why Erasmus is trying to bring the most of the overseas players home for the World Cup year.
No scrumhalf has emphatically underlined his international potential in Super Rugby, so Faf de Klerk should join Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn, who are special players, as the overseas-based players considered certainties for Bok selection under Eramus.
For the rest it will require a fine balancing act and if there is a selection count-out between a home-based and an expat player of equal ability and experience, the principle should be applied rigidly.