JOHANNESBURG - The speculation, the guessing and the predictions will come to an end on Tuesday when Springbok coach Allister Coetzee names his 31-man squad for June’s three Tests against France. Rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen highlights five puzzles the fans will be hoping are resolved today.
The captaincy issue
Who’ll succeed Adriaan Strauss as team leader? It’s a major decision for the coach: he’ll want a man who is the undisputed first choice in his position - remember how much flak John Smit had to deal with when Bismarck du Plessis was pushing him and even Strauss last year wasn’t always seen as the best man for the job, with many wanting Malcolm Marx to start more regularly. Coetzee has to choose between fan favourites and South Africa’s most successful captain over the last three years; the Lions’ Warren Whiteley, Stormers’ Siya Kolisi and possibly Eben Etzebeth, the Cheetahs’ Francois Venter and then, from abroad, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw.
While SA and even the players will be desperate to know who the captain will be, they may have to wait a little longer as Coetzee is likely to only name the skipper in the week leading up to the first Test.
There are no restrictions on how many overseas-based men Coetzee can pick now; the 30-Test rule only comes into play from the beginning of July, so the coach can pick whoever he wants.
He won’t however, be a very popular man if half his team are from abroad, but it’s doubtful he’ll do that. He is, however, expected to have a good sprinkling of veterans from Europe in his squad, the favourites being Frans Steyn, Bismarck, Steven Kitshoff and possibly Vermeulen. But then there is also Louw, a mainstay of the side over the last few seasons, and what about Francois Hougaard, many fans’ favourite to wear the No 9 on his back, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and even Jannie du Plessis?
Who’ll be the director?
Every man in the team has a big role to play, but the flyhalf is the key position. It is the man in the No 10 shirt who directs play, makes the big decisions, decides to kick, run or pass, and is often also the man who has to kick the goals, penalties and drop-kicks. The All Blacks can pick Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Richie Mo’unga, Lima Sopoaga, Marty Banks ... who do the Boks have. Is it only Elton Jantjies in the running? He’s a class act at Super Rugby level because his coach believes in him and trusts him, as he does his coach, but does he feel the same about Coetzee and does the Bok coach back him fully to play his own game?
Handre Pollard is a major doubt because of injury, and no one is quite sure what Pat Lambie’s situation is after being concussed again recently. Is there going to be a surprise call-up for Curwin Bosch from the Under-20 ranks, does journeyman Lionel Cronje, statistically the best flyhalf in SA, have a chance, and what about Robert du Preez and Jean-Luc du Plessis? And, what chance of Morne Steyn getting a call-up?
Same old, or wow?
Let’s not beat around the bush ... Coetzee is under pressure to register a 3-0 series win. He is also under pressure to get the Boks playing an exciting, expansive game and to fix all the wrongs of last year. Will this make him pick an older, more experienced squad, which some will classify as being “conservative” or will he throw caution to the wind and back some of the young and exciting players who have thrilled in Super Rugby this season.
Not even considering Faf de Klerk as an impact player is unfortunate because he has something to offer the Boks.
Harold Vorster has been awesome this season, and so too Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Ackermann, Sergeal Petersen, Clayton Blommetjies, Ox Nche, Thomas du Toit, the Du Preez brothers Jean-Luc and Dan, Lukhanyo Am, Curwin Bosch, Makazole Mapimpi, Andisa Ntsila, Chris Cloete, Dillyn Leyds and Wilco Louw.
Transform the team!
There have been a number of black players who have performed superbly this year and will make Coetzee’s squad, but he must also give them a proper chance to show what they can do when he names his matchday squads. Here one thinks of some of the names mentioned above and others, like Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Dillyn Leyds, Seabelo Senatla, Lionel Mapoe ... all players on the fringes of the squad or matchday team who deserve a decent opportunity.
There will, as always, be selections that will surprise some, but Coetzee has a moral responsibility to SA rugby and the larger community to pick a certain number of black players, but he hasn’t had the backing of everyone this year. The Lions may be runaway Super Rugby leaders, but they have done little to boost the pool of black players Coetzee can pick from; the Joburg team having only a 20% black player representation up to round 11.