At 28-years-old, the 13-cap Bok – who is recovering from a groin injury and is expected to be fit again at the end of February – can be seen as one who still has a lot to offer, especially if you consider the ever-increasing shelf life of rugby players. And don’t forget about experience Paige obviously has that too. And we all know how experience has been an oxygen mask for South African rugby for many, (way too) many years.
But the Bulls executive of rugby had other plans when it came to selecting his No 9s for the new-format Super season.
The New Zealander opted to go with 22-year-old Ivan van Zyl and 20-year-old Embrose Papier (there’s 24-year-old Andre Warner as well). And in doing so, Mitchell blew off the old SA tradition and over-reliance on experience.
During the squad announcement on Monday, Mitchell said: “It was very important for me not to be hasty and to make sure that I had enough information on players’ standards. He (Paige) has been fantastic for the club. He’s made it his life in recent years and has given a lot.”
“But I just thought it was time to move forward with the young No 9s. I like a very fast No 9 and certainly all the No 9s that we’ve selected have that ability.”
And that makes sense. Mitchell is a man on a mission. And he’s shown it a number of times since he took over at the Pretoria-based team.
But don’t get me wrong. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of Paige or not, there’s no need to celebrate his omission, even if he’s not your cup of tea.
I’ve already seen a couple of “he got dropped by the Bulls, but just watch, he’ll still play for the Boks” comments on social media. Remember, last year Paige had his time wasted while with the Springboks in a way that bordered absurdity (it’s not like the other scrumhalves in the Bok jersey did nearly enough to cement their place).
And, besides, if you think Paige doesn’t offer much, I’m sure you’d be able to recall a number of Springbok and Super Rugby players who offered about as little value to their team as World Rugby’s “preferred host” title evidently does to the World Cup bidding outcome. Yet those players stuck around.
But getting back to Mitchell’s decision – it’s one that I think deserves praise. Not necessarily with regards to the player, but rather Mitchell’s thinking and his willingness to work towards what he wants for his team.
The Bulls chief has said that he wants to move forward with young No 9s and that he wants “very fast scrumhalves”. He’s made his intentions clear, and the fact that he’s willing to take this risk to turn his vision into reality is something that I wish we could see more of in rugby.
He doesn’t say one thing and bore us to death with his plans, but flips the switch when it comes to implementing those plans and working towards the end goal. No, he’s shown that he’s not into that.
And, besides, both Van Zyl and Papier are exciting prospects.
Papier, especially, is a player who can create something out of nothing. The former Junior Bok can flip a match like a coin in a second with his vision, speed and agility, and the fact that he can shine in a position that SA rugby is still desperately trying to find an answer to is a bonus.
So again, Mitchell’s inclusions at scrumhalf are promising. But it’s his thinking, vision and plans – and the fact that he acted on those – that I think form an even-stronger message than Papier’s powerful step.