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Conservatism is not for the youth: Springbok coach must open the door for younger players

FILE - Aphelele Fassi of South Africa (front) scores a try against Argentina during a Rugby Championship. Photo: EPA via BackpagePix

FILE - Aphelele Fassi of South Africa (front) scores a try against Argentina during a Rugby Championship. Photo: EPA via BackpagePix

Published Nov 9, 2021


Durban - Judging by their conservative selections for the end-of-year tour, Jacques Nienaber wants to keep matters uncomplicated to have the best chance of successfully closing out a difficult year.

It has been an often traumatic season, fraught with Covid-enforced difficulties, be it actual infections back in July at the time of the Georgia visit and the arrival of British & Irish Lions; isolation in Australia; and then the toughest of Rugby Championship schedules that pitted the Boks against the Wallabies and All Blacks on four consecutive Saturdays.

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Two weeks after beating New Zealand, the Boks were in France to prepare for Wales, Scotland and England, and the refrain from Nienaber has been “no time for experimentation.”

ALSO READ: Springboks must be ready for anything against Scotland, says assistant coach Deon Davids

And that is fine because there are no glaring issues with the current personnel, but in some areas Nienaber could have explored his depth and he must also be careful that he doesn’t send out the message that his squad is pretty much closed to anyone who did play at the 2019 World Cup.

Next year, with the rugby calendar assuming normality, he has to open the door to new faces who have proved their form. The next World Cup is two years away and the squad that beat England in Yokohama will not en masse be available in France. Natural attrition will take care of that.

For example, the gifted Johan Goosen needs to be looked at to augment the flyhalf depth — and it is a pity he is injured — while Warwick Gelant showed for the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship that he is approaching his best form again; and then there is the strange case of Aphelele Fassi, who is on tour but was did not start against Wales when the right wing door opened after passport control closed theirs to Sbu Nkosi.

ALSO READ: Springbok player ratings: Frans Steyn, Makazole Mapimpi stand tall in Cardiff

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Picking centre Jesse Kriel on the wing made little sense before the Wales game and even less after.

Nienaber said last week that youngsters need to be patient. I don’t buy this regarding Fassi … genuine X-factor should not have to queue for selection.

The reasoning is similar to what is happening in England where only Eddie Jones can explain why the brilliant Marcus Smith must be content with cameos off the bench, despite performing wizardry each time he comes on at No 10.

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Jones’ explanation is that young players tend to get ahead of themselves if picked too soon.

“The big thing for good young players is distractions, which could be the exposure they get in the media, the praise they get, the criticism they get. There can be groups of agents who see this guy as the next big thing,” Jones told The Guardian.

ALSO READ: Kolisi hails South African mentality as Springboks end Wales 'hoodoo'

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Jones highlighted the example of young British tennis star, Emma Raducanu.

“There’s a reason why the young girl who won the US Open hasn’t done so well afterward,” he said. “You see her on the front page of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar wearing Christian Dior clothes ...

“All that is a distraction. It might not be to that degree with Marcus, but potentially it could be. He is grounded, but they all start out grounded. No one starts with their feet off the ground… but there are a flood of distractions which can come in.”

It is true that there have been cases of young rugby sensations losing themselves in the bright lights — James O’Connor springs to mind and it is great to see him return to the Wallabies after maturing in the wilderness —but in the professional era there are far more restraints to keep youngsters on the rails, and I seriously doubt Smith or Fassi would implode if picked for their countries.


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