Young guns firing, but older heads are needed

Super Rugby
“When I started out as a 22-year-old playing Super Rugby, it was unusual to have a player that young in the competition, but now it is considered unusual to have a 32-year-old playing, and 22-year-olds are the norm.”

Those were the words of Sharks stalwart and sometimes-captain Keegan Daniel when I interviewed him for the Cape Town chapter of the Sharks Supporters Club this week, and it got me thinking about one of the biggest challenges facing southern hemisphere rugby at a time when the lure of foreign currencies is so strong.

When Daniel first arrived on the scene, it was the start of a new era for the Sharks.

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Damian Willemse may have started for the Stormers against the Sunwolves if he had experienced players around him.Captain John Smit was off the field in the closing stages when the Sharks lost the 2007 Super Rugby final.

Dick Muir had just taken over as coach and he was quite fearless in implementing a youth policy that, in addition to Daniel, saw the likes of Ryan Kankowski, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Brad Barritt (who later played for England), Waylon Murray and Bismarck du Plessis all get introduced to top rugby at a very young age.

Muir already had other young players such as Ruan Pienaar on the Sharks’ books when he took over in 2005.

However, what was key at that time was that he also had a core of experienced players he could build his team around, with John Smit, the finest Springbok captain of the post-isolation era, leading a side that also included older hands such as Johan Ackermann, Johan Muller, Albert van den Berg, AJ Venter and Butch James.

Bob Skinstad joined the Sharks in 2007 to further boost the experience quotient, as did fullback Percy Montgomery, and it was probably no coincidence that that was the year the Sharks delivered their best Super Rugby performance ever.

It was only a last-gasp freak try from then-Bulls wing Bryan Habana that robbed the Sharks of what would have been a deserved Super 14 title that year.

They topped the log to host the final and they dominated the deciding game up until that last fateful moment on the hooter when Habana, amidst an almost surreal silence at Kings Park, glided through to score the winning points.

It was freaky bad luck for Muir and his assistant John Plumtree, who had been hugging each other in the coaching box minutes before then, following a Van den Berg try they had thought had won them the game.

Plumtree later told me about how they danced around chanting that they couldn’t believe they’d just won the Super 14.

But there was also a lesson for Muir in why it went wrong for his team at that late stage. He had emptied his bench, and all the experienced players, including skipper Smit and ace goal-kicker Montgomery, were off the field.

When Van den Berg scored his try to put his team six points ahead, there were only three minutes left to play.

What was required of the Sharks was that they just needed to kick a not particularly difficult conversion and they’d have been out of range of the Bulls. They also had an opportunity to wind down the clock in taking the kick.

That they didn’t do either was because there were no experienced players on the field to prevent 19-year-old Frans Steyn from rushing the conversion and missing it in the process.

If you look through the teams that have been successful through the history of Super Rugby, you will note there has always been the right blend of experience and youth.

The Stormers’ best season in Super Rugby was 2010, when they were beaten by the Bulls in the Soweto final.

It was a year when they had the experience of Jaque Fourie and Habana injected into the mix alongside matured home-grown players like Schalk Burger and Andries Bekker.

Captain John Smit was off the field in the closing stages when the Sharks lost the 2007 Super Rugby final.

The Bulls are an object lesson on the benefits of building through a multi-year plan. It was because of the building blocks put in place, and the players blooded in the middle part of last decade under the coaching of Heyneke Meyer that they were able to make winning such a habit in 2009 and 2010. The combinations and players were experienced.

That was the key too to the Lions’ relative coming of age last season. The core of the Lions group that went on to contest the final had been playing together for a couple of seasons. It helped the talented Rohan Janse van Rensburg shine as a newcomer in the No 12 jersey.

I think Damian Willemse is the flyhalf future for the Stormers. And if the Stormers were fielding a backline in Singapore on Saturday that included Jean de Villiers, Fourie and Habana, I’d have no qualms in blooding him in the No 10 jersey against the Sunwolves.

Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is right though when he says the current backline is inexperienced, and indeed the entire Stormers team was a bit green for the Sunwolves game.

Experience is necessary, particularly at an away venue, and the bottom line is that there just aren’t enough of the 32-year-olds that Daniel was referring to there to guide what is becoming an increasingly younger pool of South African talent.

It’s one of the big drawbacks of the way the outflow of players has turned the southern hemisphere competitions into a feeder pool for foreign clubs.

Weekend Argus

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