Can old hands fire the young guns?
Two seasons in one is the best way to describe the way that rugby is currently played in this country. The first two-thirds are devoted to Super Rugby and the June international window. Injuries permitting, the best and most experienced players are available to the franchises and the national side.
The final third sees the remaining elite players claimed by the Springbok coach, with everyone else contesting the oldest provincial competition in the world, the Currie Cup.
It is, of course, not that simple. At the end of July, for instance, there was a massive exodus of players taking up lucrative contracts in the Far East and Europe. The bulk of these have turned their backs on the Springboks – for the short term, at least. Several others are unavailable for the Rugby Championship, which begins next week, but may be released by their clubs for a few games on the end of season tour.
National coach Heyneke Meyer has to put a brave face on things and is aided by a kind draw in the looming four nations tournament. The Boks begin with home and away clashes against Argentina, an ideal way in which to remove the cobwebs and settle new players into the structure.
The Springboks’ first match in the antipodes is a month away, against Australia in Perth, a city that has been kind to them over the years. A week later they play New Zealand in Wellington, before finishing with games against Australia at Newlands and the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
Meyer may not have anything like his first-choice team available, but he has some outrageous young talent and a hard core of seasoned veterans who have chosen to remain in South Africa. The most seasoned of all, 38-year-old Victor Matfield, has withdrawn from the squad with a knee injury, but if that is the worst thing that happens to Meyer for the next two months he should be laughing.
Compare the national coach’s position to a few of his provincial counterparts. The Sharks are the defending champions in the Currie Cup but, when they run out against Griquas in Kimberley on Saturday, it will be with scarcely any of the players who took part in the losing Super Rugby semifinal against the Crusaders a fortnight ago.
There is a new captain in dynamic flank Terra Mthembu, while the Du Plessis brothers, Beast Mtawarira, Willem Alberts, Marcel Coetzee, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie and Lwazi Mvovo are all with the Boks. In addition, Ryan Kankowski, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod and JP Pietersen have left to join overseas clubs.
It is a similar story in Cape Town, where this week Western Province coach Allister Coetzee announced a side to play the Kings in Port Elizabeth with eight debutants in a squad of 23. Few outside the inner circle will know the pedigree of Stephan Coetzee, Sikhumbuzo Notshe or Jean Kleyn, all of whom are on the bench for Province.
Jaco Taute is unavailable and is replaced at fullback by the will-o’-the-wisp winger Cheslin Kolbe, and another former Blitz-bokke star, Seabelo Senatla, makes his debut on the left wing. With Duane Vermeulen on national duty and Schalk Burger in Japan, Michael Rhodes has been entrusted with the number seven jersey. He played there for Michaelhouse and, briefly, for the Sharks but has been operating at lock for the past three seasons.
But, even among the carnage, Coetzee has been able to select five Springboks in Siya Kolisi, Pat Cilliers, Tiaan Liebenberg, Eben Etzebeth and Frans Malherbe. The last two have been released to play by Meyer, as both need game time following long-term injuries.
Kolisi has been dropped from the Bok squad and must wonder what the future holds after Meyer chose to replace Matfield with 2007 World Cup winner Juan Smith this week.
Bad news for Kolisi and others it may be but Smith’s return is truly remarkable. He was last seen on a South African field in a preseason friendly between the Cheetahs and Stormers two seasons ago. He came off the bench in the second half, inspired the Cheetahs to an unlikely win and then announced his retirement from the game, citing an intractable Achilles tendon problem.
Smith’s story attracted the attention of an American surgeon who specialises in repairing the Achilles tendons of elite sports people. Nine months later he was playing for Toulon and winning the Top 14 and Heineken Cup.
Smith’s call-up brings to 15 the number of squad members from the 2007 World Cup who have been part of Meyer’s structures in 2014. Not all will go to next year’s tournament, of course. Wynand Olivier was a fringe player then and remains so now, while Frans Steyn’s financial dramas mean that he may never play for the Springboks again.
Nevertheless, the coach has painted himself into a corner just over a year away from the showpiece. When the time comes, Meyer will have to make a call between youth and experience, between the discretion that age brings and the fearlessness of the callow. He is fortunate that he has the Rugby Championship to help to show him the way.