If there is one certainty about the Springbok squad due to be announced in Umhlanga on Friday night, it is that it will contain a shock or two. Extended squads such as the 31 for next month’s World Cup always leave room for the odd “bolter”. A look back at some controversial selections for the previous five campaigns may help prepare us for Friday’s revelations.
1995: Robbie Brink
Coach Kitch Christie inherited the side built by Ian McIntosh with less than a year left before the World Cup. One of Mac’s worries was the absence of a back-row forward who could provide a third line-out option. A few eye-catching performances for Western Province early in the 1995 season persuaded Christie that Robbie Brink was his man.
He was preferred to the great Tiaan Strauss, who did not see eye to eye with Bok captain Francois Pienaar. Strauss was frozen out and transferred his allegiances to Australia, having the last laugh with a winner’s medal at the 1999 World Cup.
Brink played against Romania and Canada at the World Cup and was part of the first contracted Bok squad later that year. It made him financially secure, but injuries precluded him from ever wearing the Bok jersey again. He finished his career playing in Ireland for Ulster under former Province coach Alan Solomons.
1999: Kaya Malotana
Actually, the 1999 tournament is better remembered for the omission of Gary Teichmann than for the inclusion of the centre from Border. Coach Nick Mallett controversially axed the Bok skipper ahead of the event and perhaps ended his side’s hopes of retaining the Webb-Ellis trophy as a direct consequence.
Malotana, like Brink, owed his inclusion to a few good performances when the television cameras happened to be watching. Principal among these was a two-try display against Scotland in East London. Ironically, the strapping lad from the Transkei made his only Test appearance at Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby, in the pool match against Spain. He subsequently moved to the Lions, but injuries curtailed a promising career.
2003: Christo Bezuidenhout
Rudolf Straeuli’s ill-considered Kamp Staaldraad is what most people remember about the prelude to the 2003 campaign. After being forced naked into a pit and challenged with slaughtering a chicken in the name of team-building, the side was bundled out by the All Blacks at the quarterfinal stage.
It’s hard to imagine what Christo Bezuidenhout (above) made of it all. At 33, he was the oldest member of the squad, included as a loosehead prop in the absence through injury of the great Os du Randt. Perhaps he enjoyed the attention, having not played a game of first-class rugby until he joined the Pumas in 1998, aged 28. As it turned out, Bezuidenhout was an inspired choice, one of the few who advanced their reputations in games against England, Samoa and New Zealand.
2007: Bob Skinstad
By the time Jake White got around to including him in his ultimately victorious squad, four years had passed since Bob Skinstad had retired from the game. Sore and beset with niggling injuries, the former Bok captain went into business, spending time as an estate agent in London and launching the media career that now takes up much of his time.
But, like another former retiree, Os du Randt, Skinstad found his body got better with rest and he made his way back to international rugby after a few seasons with the Sharks. White valued his experience and Skinstad even captained the Boks one final time (and scored a try), against Tonga in Lens.
The rest of his World Cup consisted of 25 minutes of playing time, spread over three games. He was not part of the match-day 23 in the final, but he celebrated louder and longer than most and can be seen in virtually every major image as close as possible to the Webb-Ellis trophy.
2011: John Smit
Peter de Villiers had the same problem four years ago that Heyneke Meyer has today: a 34-year-old captain who is carrying an injury heading into the World Cup. Today it is Jean de Villiers’s broken jaw that is causing consternation, but in 2011 Smit, clearly in the autumn of his career, had troublesome hamstrings and an elbow injury that wouldn’t go away. But his leadership skills were deemed important enough to relegate the best hooker in the world, Bismarck du Plessis, to the bench.
Smit on his own might have been accommodated, but in hindsight De Villiers was probably overreliant on players who had “been there, done that”. Several of them retired from international rugby after the quarterfinal defeat to Australia, including Smit, who saw out his playing career at Saracens in London before rather controversially taking over as chief executive at the Sharks in 2013.
Who will it be this year? Rudy Paige has been tipped to make the trip as the third scrum-half ahead of Cobus Reinach. Several other places may be up for grabs, with Bok management belatedly recognising the need for transformation. The recriminations will begin on Friday night.