Vermeulen's injury creates space for Whiteley which will up the tempo of the Bok game
The best way for the Springboks to approach their opening match in the Rugby Championship is to accept that change is good. Critics have been pleading for a change in approach to the tactics of the national side, and happenings elsewhere in the game seem to suggest that it is now more than just a pipe dream.
From a rugby perspective, the absence of Duane Vermeulen from the match-day squad is encouraging. Vermeulen is a fine player and will feature again for the Springboks, but the injury that has made the eighth man unavailable for the foreseeable future has come at precisely the right time.
It will change the dynamic in the squad, both in the short and long term.
First, it allows coach Allister Coetzee to promote Warren Whiteley to the starting line-up. Whiteley’s presence, with a phalanx of Lions players, will up the tempo of the game played by the Springboks. Perhaps more importantly, it will shake up the team leadership.
It has been conveniently forgotten that the current captain, Adriaan Strauss, was not Coetzee’s first choice in the role. He wanted Vermeulen but was persuaded that giving the captaincy to an overseas-based player was a bridge too far to contemplate. Of the original squad gathered together in June, Whiteley was the obvious man to take the Springboks into a new era, but the coach baulked at the idea of playing without Vermeulen.
The promotion of Whiteley to the starting side applies pressure to Strauss. The Bulls hooker has been a shadow of the player he was when he had to battle for game time with Bismarck du Plessis. The extra cares of captaincy have added to the downward spiral and the arrival of the dynamic Lions hooker, Malcolm Marx, may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Marx has size, pace and youth on his side. He may not make the match-day squad anytime soon, but his mere presence at the team hotel is a constant reminder that the clock is ticking for Strauss, and that Whiteley is what in politics is known as a stalking horse.
The coach is supposed to be in charge of these things, but Coetzee may feel he no longer has his hands on the rudder. That feeling will be increased by the resignation of the South African Rugby Union president, Oregan Hoskins. Saru’s national council was informed on Wednesday that Hoskins would not be seeing out his fourth term in office. His deputy, Mark Alexander, will serve until there is time for an election.
Hoskins leaves after 10 years at the top and at a time when cool heads are needed. He had lost the support of the major unions and chose discretion as the better part of valour. His successor will need to deal with turbulent times in the local game. Sponsorship money has dried up and, instead of four-year deals with major companies, Saru has had to find money for short-term fixes.
It may seem trivial, given the amount of money television brings to the table, but sponsorships such as those with Absa, Castle and Sasol during Hoskins’s time provided the money to buy player loyalty and to maintain the trappings of executive power so beloved of elected officials.
The road ahead is rocky, more so because the stability Hoskins provided during his four terms of office has gone. It is easy to forget the parlous state of the union when Hoskins succeeded Brian van Rooyen in 2006. The 2007 South African Rugby Annual described the first months of Hoskins’s presidency as an exercise in “unscrambling the omelette he had been left by his predecessor”.
Hoskins had to defend then Springbok coach Jake White from a hostile Saru board. Hoskins’s legal background helped then and in many other situations down the years, as he convinced the two parties they could live together in harmony. White stayed and won the World Cup with the Springboks less than 12 months later, but the simmering hostility built up during 2006 meant he was not allowed to seek a new four-year term.
Another matter that caused huge political fall-out at the beginning of Hoskins’s tenure has eerie prescience in the affairs of the present day. In 2005, Saru had decided to uplift rugby in the Eastern Cape by creating a Super Rugby franchise there. The Southern Spears were offered participation in the 2006 Currie Cup and to play Super Rugby in 2007 in place of the lowest-ranked South African franchise in 2006.
The major unions voted with the idea in 2005 but, faced with the harsh realities at the beginning of Hoskins’s term, they reneged. So the mess that ended in the liquidation a fortnight ago of the Eastern Province Rugby Union has been a decade in the making. It is quite possible that the decision to maintain the Kings in this year’s Currie Cup was the final straw for Hoskins.
He steps aside with huge uncertainty over the future direction of both Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, and the migration of elite players to wealthy clubs in Europe and Japan continues apace. Hoskins’s position in the upper echelons of World Rugby, the game’s governing body, meant South Africa had an important voice at the top table. No more.
The incoming World Rugby president, Bill Beaumont, has been tasked with producing a blueprint for a global season. It is likely that it will not look kindly on Super Rugby and, if that is the case, the single biggest income stream for Saru will be gone. Hoskins’s long-term successor may have to preside over the unbundling of structures built over 20 years.