Brave new world awaits Boks ..
Perhaps it is a good omen that a fresh start for Springbok rugby begins with a tour by Ireland.
On June 12 2004, the Jake White era began with a 31-17 victory over Ireland in Bloemfontein. One day short of 12 years later, the Allister Coetzee era begins at Newlands with the first of three Tests against the men from the Emerald Isle.
Coetzee was part of White’s coaching team and may have had flashbacks when he was putting together his 31-man squad last month. That’s because White’s first run-on XV was as utterly different from the last selection by Rudolf Straeuli as Coetzee’s is from Heyneke Meyer’s.
In White’s team there were 11 changes and a positional switch from the side knocked out by New Zealand at the quarterfinal stages of the 2003 World Cup. There was a new captain in John Smit, a new scrumhalf in Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger earned a place in the run-on side for the first time. The record-breaking lock partnership of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha was just a year old.
But it is significant that most of the rest of the match-day 23 had been discarded by the time White’s team won the 2007 World Cup. In three years’ time it will be fascinating to peruse Coetzee’s initial selection, when all the talk will centre on the squad for the 2019 World Cup.
Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan said: “Every Test match is a new beginning. There’s a new ball, new referee, new coaches, new players.” Van Graan is the sole survivor from the previous coaching set-up.
Of those who played in Meyer’s squad for the third-place playoff game against Argentina last year, Bryan Habana, Handré Pollard, Ruan Pienaar, Burger, Matfield, the Du Plessis brothers, Willem Alberts and Jan Serfontein are missing. Du Preez was injured and missed the game, as did Jean de Villiers. In cap terms, it adds up to 796 Test matches.
It is, in all respects, a leap into the unknown. That is as much to do with the opposition as it is to do with Coetzee’s choices.
Ireland have come on tour without several of their first-choice side, and forwards coach Simon Easterby said: “I think every team will travel from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere without some players, and we are no different.
“But what it does do is allow us to view those players up close over the next three weeks and see what they can bring. That is particularly the case with those that we don’t know so well at this point but who have stood up in our domestic competition.”
Coetzee will echo those sentiments because his squad has essentially been selected on domestic form, with the exception being the two back-row forwards, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw, who ply their trade in France and England respectively.
It is more than a little ironic that the coach has gone beyond these shores to select his back row, given that Ireland’s eighth man is CJ Stander. Stander played Super Rugby for the Bulls, but could see no easy way into the Test team given the number of outstanding flanks and eights this country produces every year. So he signed for Munster and, three years later, qualified by residency to play for his adopted country.
That Stander should feel that way throws a sharp spotlight on the ongoing migration of the country’s best players. Stander played for South African Schools in 2008, captained the SA Under-20 side to the World Championships two years later, and was included in Meyer’s extended Springbok squad before the international season in 2012.
There are two other South African expatriates in the Irish squad, including Richardt Strauss, whose cousin, Adriaan, has just been made Springbok captain. In the South African Schools team of 2003, Richardt played on the flank and Adriaan at hooker, the same positions the pair had occupied in the Grey College first team.
This is something that Springbok coaches are just going to have to get used to. It was Carlos Alberto Perreira, the great Brazilian coach who looked after Bafana Bafana for a while, who stated that Brazil’s principal export was football players. He estimated that about 3 000 a year migrated around the world, looking for places to play. Soon, the same will be true of South African and New Zealand-born rugby players.
All the foregoing should have the effect of concentrating the minds of Coetzee’s chosen few on Saturday. They are the lucky ones, who were in the right place at the right time.
That is certainly true of Pat Lambie, who returned from injury at precisely the moment he was needed by the national side. His job is to play with such effect that the coach has to think long and hard about whether a fit-again Elton Jantjies should be rushed into the starting team.
It is true also of Lions pair Lionel Mapoe and Faf de Klerk. The latter is in the happy position of having no one breathing down his neck, as this is a lean time for South African scrumhalves. Rest assured that, if there was another locally based, Test-quality number nine, De Klerk’s size (or lack of it) would be constantly challenged.
Mapoe is rewarded for consistently outstanding play with the Lions and, at the age of 28, he now has the world at his feet.
It is asking much of a new combination to hit the ground running and there will be times on Saturday when critical voices are raised. But there is enough talent on display for a convincing win that should set the tone for the rest of the series.