Cape Town – Just when we thought Heyneke Meyer was prepared to loosen the buttons of the traditional Springbok straitjacket, he seems to have felt a cold breeze of fear around his neck and turned his collar up.
Zane Kirchner will start at fullback and Willie le Roux on the wing against the Wallabies. It is the safe choice, and who knows, Kirchner might even have a blinder in Brisbane. Morné Steyn might kick seven penalties, Kirchner might be faultless under the high ball, the Boks might win 21-15 and we would all be happy again.
All of us happy? Not so sure about that, bro. There was an unmistakable frisson of excitement down the hallways and highways and twitterways of South African rugby when Meyer selected Le Roux at fullback earlier this year. Even more so when Meyer told the media he had given Le Roux the go-ahead to “play it as he sees it”.
Actually, Gio Aplon would be my choice at Bok fullback – or at least the Aplon of old, not the “play-it-by-the-Allister-manual” version of the 2013 Currie Cup. But I agree that Le Roux has brought a new dimension to the Bok backplay. Of course there are his little chips, but what I like about Le Roux is the timing of his short drift passes, his awareness of space, his ability with ball-in-hand to make a defender hesitate for a few fatal seconds. And he knows when to chuck a long pass.
Fair enough, he dropped a couple of up-and-unders in Mendoza, and there was a clumsy punt straight into touch. But the next two weeks could have proved whether Le Roux was really good enough to be a Test fullback. Suncorp and Eden Park are as tough as it gets. But now we will never know. And I don’t quite see the point of shifting Le Roux to the wing. What applies to Aplon, applies to Le Roux. At 15 you make decisions that can change the course of a match. You just don’t get the same kind of chances to do that at 14 or 11.
And let’s not recycle the tiresome “running versus kicking argument” again. It goes way beyond that. The best players and the best teams in rugby football have always been defined by that priceless ability to know WHEN to kick and WHEN to run, when to “maak vas” and when to spread it. And those calls can only be made on the field of play when you have all the variables in front of you – be it the weather, be it the game situation, be it the referee’s interpretations, be it your opponents. Those calls can’t be made on a chalkboard four days before the match.
A creative mindset has got nothing to do with foolish running or aimless kicking. It’s about empowering players to make the big calls on the field. And then selecting players who can do that. That is the essential difference between the predictable Kirchner and the unpredictable Le Roux.
When it comes to the crunch, maybe the “NikNaks man” at fullback turns out to be the right choice. And a gameplan does not revolve around just one player. We will have a much clearer idea of where the Boks are heading once Auckland is behind them. Whether it’s Plain Zane or Wild Willie, you still gotta go out and “Beat the Blacks.”
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*Ian Smit is the sports editor of the Cape Times and a former rugby writer of the paper.