Choosing the best team calls for help
Ian McIntosh and Peter Jooste have worked together as Springbok selectors largely unnoticed for the past decade. Unnoticed because for the main part they have allowed the coach to pick the team he wants. This was as true of Jake White and Pieter de Villiers, as it is of the current incumbent, Heyneke Meyer.
But selecting an international rugby team is an imprecise art and McIntosh said this week that he believes his role alongside Jooste is to act as a sounding board.
He told Radio 702: “When I was the Springbok coach in the Nineties, there were six selectors and it was really hard to get the team I wanted. I believe that the current system is the best. Heyneke must get the team he wants because he carries the can, and Peter and I are really there to offer advice.”
That being the case, the pair will be switching into overdrive because, with just two Test matches against Argentina remaining before the World Cup, there are far more questions than answers about what constitutes South Africa’s best side. Part of the problem is this country has a plethora of Test-class players. Other teams attending the quadrennial showpiece would give their eyeteeth for the talent that our selectors leave behind.
The enduring issue is one of balance. Even in the unlikely scenario that everyone agreed on what constituted the best starting 15 and bench, the curious aspect of the team environment would be an issue. Some players with abundant talent are regarded as loners, anathema in the collective. Less-gifted players with a better understanding of the team dynamic are preferred.
Then there is the tightrope walking art of balancing youth with experience. Herein lies Meyer’s real dilemma. When he took the top job in 2012, he insisted that caps would not be given away, and that great teams were shot through with vast experience. So it has become his habit in adversity to go back to players who have done the job for him in the past.
Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn were all integral members of Meyer’s Bulls team that won the Super 12 in 2007. As it happened, Matfield and Du Preez were also star performers in Jake White’s World Cup-winning squad later the same year.
Eight years later, all three are knocking on the selectors’ door again. The question to be answered is whether the door should be opened.
There is no question that Du Preez is the best available scrumhalf that this country possesses. His speed of thought, dexterity of pass and matchless kicking game place him head and shoulders above the rest, but this year he has played no rugby.
World Cup risk
The inactivity was not always come down to unfortunate injuries, either. He chose not to play for the Bulls in Super Rugby despite tacit agreement from his Japanese club. Consequently there is a risk associated with his participation in the World Cup.
Matfield’s case is entirely different. Persuaded to come out of retirement by Meyer in the apparent absence of a number five lock within hailing distance of the great man, he has defied Father Time for two years. But he has just turned 38 and injury has laid him low.
In his absence, Lood de Jager played astonishingly well against the Wallabies and All Blacks, and this week Pieter-Steph du Toit, another precocious youngster, joins De Jager in the match-day squad. It may be that Matfield’s injury has come at precisely the wrong time for him, but the right time for the Springboks. If, as has been suggested, Matfield’s Indian summer coincided with a lack of alternatives, then that lack is at an end.
As for Steyn, it is faintly ridiculous that he is even in the mix. Technically having only just turned 31, he should be in the prime of his career and he has performed consistently well for Stade Français in the French Top 14. He is, furthermore, the most capped Springbok flyhalf of all time. But that does not alter the fact that he has always been an extremely limited player who owed most of his caps to an unerring boot.
While Steyn has been campaigning in France, Handré Pollard has emerged as the best prospect in the number 10 jersey that this country has seen since … well, since it began playing Test rugby. Pollard’s back up, Pat Lambie, is also a major talent and the current squad also includes the mercurial Lions flyhalf, Elton Jantjies.
Without wishing the man any ill, it is a relief that Meyer did not bow to pressure from some parts to include Steyn in the squad this week.
Perhaps the biggest selection headache, however, is exemplified by the return of Jean de Villiers. How do you tell an indispensable player that he is no longer needed? The Springbok captain has eased his way back to fitness playing for Western Province, but his inclusion for the Durban Test breaks up a centre partnership of immense potential between Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel.
John Smit retained the Springbok captaincy at the 2011 World Cup because his leadership skills were deemed more important than the fact that he was clearly inferior as a player to Bismarck du Plessis.
Over the next two weeks, Meyer has to make a decision about whether to allow a similar scenario to play out. He may need much wise counsel from McIntosh and Jooste in the days ahead.