SOMETIMES a coach just can’t win. He’s simply not able to overcome the doubters, the men and women who’ll continue to be critical, accusing him of playing an out-dated style of rugby, relying too heavily on the boot and not picking the right players.
Every coach goes through it – criticism. Some handle it well, others not so well. But it’s always going to be there because every Tom, Dick and Harry knows better. Jake White took a beating when he was Springbok coach, and still does as boss of the Sharks, but he’s proved himself to be a winner. Heyneke Meyer, too, has his critics, yet he’s won Super Rugby titles, Currie Cup trophies and right now his Bok team are second only to the All Blacks.
But the Boks are not the dinosaur team everyone feared they’d be under the former Bulls man’s coaching. They’re playing what many describe as “total rugby” – they’re formidable up front, in every facet of the game, while the backs have shown they can mix it with the best, spreading the ball from one side of the field to the other as they go in search of the tryline. And they’re getting it right; they’re scoring tries and playing exciting rugby, easily on par with what the All Blacks produce.
The Boks are in a good space in 2014 just a year out from the World Cup, and much of that has to do with the men Meyer is picking to play for the Boks. Not everyone will like the fact that Victor Matfield was picked after spending two years in retirement, not everyone will agree there is still a place for Bakkies Botha, for Bryan Habana, Ruan Pienaar, Morné Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger, Gurthro Steenkamp and Juan Smith, but these men have shown they’re classy performers and that age is only a number.
What Meyer has got right since becoming Bok boss is that he’s picked only the best players for each Test, no matter the man’s age, or his experience. It’s something Jean de Villiers spoke about this week ahead of the Rugby Championship, which starts next weekend. The Bok captain, himself a player on the “wrong side of 30”, has proved his worth, as player and team leader.
“The balance is good,” said De Villiers, referring to the composition of the 30-man Bok squad. “What Heyneke is getting right is that he’s got good experience in a lot of positions, but there are also youngsters, who’re extremely talented, pressing for places in the team.
“At this stage, it’s not a case of ‘let’s go for the experienced guy or the younger guy’, it’s rather a case of going for the best in each position. That’s whether he’s 20 or 35... the guy who’s shown he can do the job, the guy the coach feels can represent his country and help beat the opposition.”
The young guns coming through include Jan Serfontein, who stood tall for the Boks in De Villiers’ place in June, Handré Pollard, only 20-years-old and set to be the Boks’ first choice man at No 10 in the Rugby Championship, prop Frans Malherbe, lock Lood de Jager and centre Damian de Allende. The likes of Teboho Mohoje and Cobus Reinach will also only benefit from having seasoned men alongside them in the Bok squad. They’ll all be better players for it in the long run.
South Africa’s former oldest Springbok, Johan Ackermann, who was recently overtaken by Matfield, agreed with De Villiers this week.
“It’s about getting the balance right. Also, the guy that’s picked must be able to do the job, no matter his age. It’s true youngsters bring excitement, energy and enthusiasm to a team, but if the older guy can still produce the goods you’ve got to pick him. That sort of experience and the calming influence he brings to a team is a big plus. But, also one should never select a 34-year-old when the youngster is better.”
De Villiers agrees, adding having the likes of Matfield, Botha, Habana, Du Preez and now Smith in the squad is the ideal position to be in. “Look at Lood playing alongside Victor (in June) ... there’s no better way to be introduced to Test rugby than having a guy like Victor next to you. To know you have that experience to lean on and available to learn from ... that’s how we’re getting it right.
“The youngsters in the squad are learning from some of the best men to have played the game, they’re learning quickly and the value they’re getting out of it is fantastic.”
There’s indeed still a place for the grizzled, greying operator in Test rugby; Meyer’s Boks have proved it, and they are, too, in the perfect position to now take their game to the next level – with youth and experience alongside each other. At the end of the day, age should never be a factor, only performance, and the Boks have performed well enough for everyone to now end the debate about there being too many oldies in the team. In fact, the majority of the current squad is under the age of 30, with no less than 11 players younger than 25.
Meyer’s got the balance spot-on.
Boks over 32
Bakkies Botha 34
Jean de Villiers 33
Victor Matfield 37
Gurthro Steenkamp 33
Fourie du Preez (injured) 32
Juan Smith 33
Schalk Brits 33
Boks under 25
Marcell Coetzee 23
Damian de Allende 22
Lood de Jager 21
Eben Etzebeth 22
Pat Lambie 23
Willie le Roux 24
Frans Malherbe 23
Teboho Mohoje 24
Handré Pollard 20
Cobus Reinach 24
Jan Serfontein 21 - Saturday Star