By Nsovo Shimange
This year more than any other, I have become concerned about the state of South African rugby. It has always been mind-boggling that South Africa should struggle against any team in world rugby. To expand on this, Australia have a player base of 87,000 players, New Zealand have a player base of 140,000 and South Africa have 650,000. South Africa potentially has 4 and a half times more players to select from and yet after 1999 they have consistantly struggled to beat the All Blacks. Before 1999, both teams had won 24 games against each other but these days every game against the All Blacks, South Africa go in as underdogs.
This situation is not likely to improve and may get worse for the following reasons:
1. The Coach
The merits of Heyneke Meyer getting the top job in South African rugby are debatable at every point. We cannot dispute his track record at Currie Cup and Super Rugby levels. No other coach has had his kind of success at these levels in the last ten years and it may just take a miracle for anyone else to even come close to his success. However, Meyer’s gameplan is referred to in South Africa as ‘skop and jag rugby’ (kick and chase). Basically, the biggest pack of fowards are selected to bully the opposition for 80 minutes, aiming to force mistakes and then when the opposition does eventually succumb, the ball is given to the flyhalf, who is usually a 90% place-kicker.
This gameplan works when you have the best lock duo in the world (Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha), the best scrumhalf in the world (Fourie Du Preez), a 90% kicker (Morne Steyn), and if you are playing against The Border Bulldogs. If we take this system to test level, where the forward packs are matched, the opposition scrumhalf is on par with your scrumhalf and all flyhalves are 90% kickers, then it becomes obsolete very quickly.
Meyer’s player-selection also poses plenty of questions. The biggest criticisms against him are that he has not selected the strongest team but rather he is selecting players from the Blue Bulls. South Africa are in a sad position right now where their best players are not the best in the world. The recent end-of-year tour saw Meyer select a scrum-half in the wing position, a fullback at outside centre, and a flyhalf who is currently struggling with form was selected on the bench. It’s mind-boggling because Lwazi Mvovo has had an incredible year at wing, Juan de Jong had helped Western Province win the Currie Cup just two weeks prior to that and Elton Jantjies is in superb form and should have been on the bench as the backup flyhalf.
2. The Overseas Exodus.
In the last couple of years, more and more South African players are opting to ply their trade overseas. The trend used to be that a player would only opt to go overseas as they approached the end of their careers. Now players straight out of highschool are choosing to forgo the classic route of trying to make the first team of your university, then the Vodacom Cup Team, then Currie Cup, Super Rugby and finally, hopefully get selected to the Springboks. This drain of talent is only serving to improve the standard of rugby in countries like France and England.
A recent example is CJ Stander (22 years old), who had an awesome year at the Blue Bulls but has now chosen to go play in Ireland. Other players also choose to go overseas once they get married for financial reasons but more importantly, because the longest you will be away from your wife is maybe one or two days compared to a couple of weeks during the Super Rugby Tournament.
3. Lack of Transformation Within the Game.
South Africa has had a lot of difficulties in the past with Apartheid and, even though it is now a democratic state where everyone enjoys equal human rights, rugby still seems to be run by the old guard where players of colour are not picked above white players. Often, they are instead relegated to the bench or even worse, included in the larger training squad so they can hold tackling bags for three weeks whilst on tour. Though this is not an article about race or politics, it is rather concerning that such actions are still allowed to happen in a country that calls itself the Rainbow Nation and as far as National Pride goes, the best players should represent the country.
Although the Springboks won more than they lost this year (58% win rate), most of the wins, with the exception of the Australia game, were lacklustre and you always had the feeling that if there were ten more minutes in the game, the Boks would have lost. At the time of writing this article there are less than 20 Springbok games between now and the next Rugby World Cup. It’s not much time at all and we need to catch a wake up if we want to at least try and be competitive.
You can catch the author of this article, Nsovo Shimange, on Twitter @NSOVOworksHARD