Bok beauty contest begins

It looks like the closely fought endgame of the Super 14 might turn Saturday’s announcement of the 45-man Springbok squad into something of a damp squib.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers will want to avoid disrupting the semifinal preparations of the Sharks and Stormers and will postpone naming players from those squads. Should both teams make the semi­finals, a reduced squad will assemble in Stellenbosch next week and await the arrival of the Sharks and Stormers players once their Super 14 campaigns have been wrapped up.

Either way, De Villiers has little time to work with his new team, which faces Six Nations champions Wales on June 7 and 14.

In an interview with the editors of website sarugby.com De Villiers was cagey, disclosing little in advance about his planned squad, but stating that he aims to find the “unique talent of each player—what makes him outstanding” and “blood that into a team environment, so that he can bring his uniqueness to a prospering team”.

De Villiers recently outlined plans to use a rotation policy in selecting Springbok teams this year, aiming to create “three teams at the end of the season that will be more or less equally competitive”.

He should be careful, though, to heed the lessons of New Zealand’s failed 2007 World Cup campaign, where extensive rotation was one of the causes of the All Blacks spluttering out in the quarterfinal.

Worrying some conservative Bok fans, De Villiers also stated that he wants the Boks to “beat the All Blacks at their own game”, signalling a turn away from former coach Jake White’s structured game plans towards a more improvised, free-flowing approach.

Accordingly, expect to see relatively few representatives from the underachieving Bulls in the squad, with players such as Derick Hougaard, Wynand Olivier and Morné Steyn likely to be staying in Pretoria.

Certain to return from overseas stints are World Cup standouts John Smit and Victor Matfield. De Villiers confirmed Smit as his captain before the Super 14 got under way and Matfield will bring experience and temperament, as well as a reputation as the world’s best lock forward.

Sharks battering ram Bismarck du Plessis remains Smit’s obvious understudy, with the Stormers’ Schalk Brits third in line to the Bok number two jersey after his brilliant runs and linebreaks this season.

A few uncapped players have selected themselves by consistently turning in outstanding performances in the Super 14 and look sure to pull on the green and gold soon. Stormers lock Andries Bekker is an obvious example, his mobile, 2,08m frame a huge advantage in the line­out and the loose. He should be joined by uncapped ­Zimbabwe-born props Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Brian Mujati, as both big men were cornerstones of their respective Super 14 packs. They should be joined by established props BJ Botha, CJ van der Linde, Jannie du Plessis and Guthro Steenkamp.

Flyhalf is a position that is sure to worry De Villiers, as our Super 14 teams still lack a true world-class player of the calibre of Dan Carter. Expect to see a definite place for Stormers playmaker Peter Grant in the mix, although De Villiers would do well to recall Butch James, now plying his trade in Bath, England. James has the international experience that the Boks will need to draw on and can act as a mentor to the undoubtedly talented Grant.

In the midfield Stormers captain Jean de Villiers is a shoo-in, the best inside centre in the country. The question of who he should be partnered with is still up in the air, so expect to see options in the form of Waylon Murray, Gcobani Bobo and Jacques Fourie in the squad. Fourie is undoubtedly one of the best outside centres in the world and first choice in France last year, but he returned only recently from injury and might take some time to get back up to speed.

Wings Bryan Habana and Tonderai Chavanga are certain to be first choices, with Odwa Ndungane and Jongi Nokwe also having put up their hands. World Cup right wing JP Pietersen has not shown the same form he did last year, but should still be included in the squad.

At fullback De Villiers’s big decision is whether to recall Percy Montgomery, the most capped Springbok, or to look to new blood—most likely in the form of Conrad Jantjes, with Stefan Terblanche and Zane Kirchner also pushing for a place.

Sharks utility backs François Steyn and Ruan Pienaar are certain to have squad places. The coming international season and guidance from the new coach should provide some insight into the positions each will be playing in the future. Expect to see Pienaar given game time at flyhalf soon and Steyn to push for a spot at centre or fullback.

Cheetahs captain Juan Smith will make the squad, but only a few of his teammates can expect to be called up. Upcoming centre Meyer Bosman might find a place, though.

And finally, to the question of Stormers loose-forward Luke Watson, who was controversially added to last year’s Springbok squad to the intense displeasure of Jake White. Expect Watson to be in the squad and probably to earn his second Bok cap soon. Watson has excelled at the back of the Stormers scrum in the Super 14, but will find the Bok number eight jersey filled by either Ryan Kankowski or Pierre Spies. However, recent injuries to World Cup flankers Schalk Burger and Wikus van Heerden might have opened up a vacancy for an openside flank specialist, a role that Watson will compete for with the in-form Keegan Daniel and Jacques Botes—both have done enough to earn a Springbok call-up this season.

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