Aphelele Fassi has shown his worth ever in the Springboks’ jersey. Picture: EPA/BACKPAGEPIX
Aphelele Fassi has shown his worth ever in the Springboks’ jersey. Picture: EPA/BACKPAGEPIX

Jacques Nienaber must avoid Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok selection mistakes

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Nov 6, 2021

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Cape Town - I sincerely hope that 2022 is a year of youthful injection into the Springboks and that the 2023 Rugby World Cup squad is not the closed shop it currently appears to be, with entry almost exclusive to those who won the World Cup in 2019.

I have been vocal in my praise of Sharks fullback Aphelele Fassi and I have been equally vocal in my criticism of Bok coach Jacques Nienaber for the continued omission of Fassie from the match-day 23 for the majority of the year.

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Fassie started the season’s first Test against Georgia and scored his first Test try with his first touch of the ball in international rugby. It took just 36 seconds. Fassie didn’t play in the three Tests against the British & Irish Lions and got one start against Argentina. He again scored a wonderful try that showcased his X-factor.

He has been a passenger for the rest of the international season, not featuring at all in the four away Rugby Championship matches. He will not play against Wales on Saturday and indications are that he may not get a game against Scotland and England as the Boks conclude their season.

What a wasted international season for a talent so bright.

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Fassi will prosper as a Test player, when he eventually gets picked, and once he is there it will seem even more bizarre that it took the coach so long to get him there.

Nienaber has been very conservative with his selections all year. He has entrusted the core of his 2019 World Cup winners and they have played week in and week out, regardless of the result and he has been insistent that 2021 was about results and not about building depth through Test match exposure and experience.

Hopefully it changes in 2022 and that next year is the precursor to boldness for 2023.

I hope it is the case, but there is also a bit of fear that Nienaber becomes too zoned in on building to a World Cup with too much emphasis on a player having to have been there in 2019. History shows how often a World Cup is a tournament in which the biggest build actually happens at the World Cup.

Eddie Jones’s England had the perfect build-up to the World Cup, winning 18 Tests in succession and only having to play the All Blacks once. England lost that Test, played at Twickenham in 2018, by a point and avenged this defeat with a crushing victory over the New Zealanders in the World Cup semi-final in 2019.

Then the Springboks ripped England’s pack apart and won the World Cup final 32-12.

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Jones’s four-year build was in pieces, and the Springboks, who had been in tatters for the first two years of the four year cycle in between World Cups, proved unstoppable in the final six weeks of the World Cup.

Jones has cleaned out his World Cup squad, believing many would be too old in 2023 and his match-day 23 to play Tonga at Twickenham on Saturday includes 13 World Cup survivors and 10 new faces.

The Jones example is an illustration and by no means the World Cup blueprint because I have always been a believer that what comes before a World Cup tournament becomes very irrelevant once at the World Cup.

Nienaber, in attempting to defend Fassi’s omission and Damian Willemse’s inclusion at fullback, focused on the 2023 World Cup and the entrenchment of his 2019 World Cup winners. Nienaber spoke of Willemse showing great patience to wait three years to get a third start. He said Fassi would have to be as patient and made it clear that it was currently harder for a player to get dropped from a matchday 23 than it was for a newbie to get into the matchday 23.

Leicester’s loose-forward Jasper Wiese has been the exception to the Nienaber rule, with the rest of the match-day squad all coming from the 2019 World Cup.

Nienaber is being loyal to those who won the big prize in 2019, but I can only hope that in the next 24 months he entertains form and is capable of rewarding form over historic feats. I also hope his thinking is not that blinkered in that he refuses to pick an inexperienced but in-form player in the future because he hasn’t been in his national system since 2019.

It is worth reminding Nienaber that he and Rassie Erasmus weren’t even in South Africa at the same period in between the 2015 and 2019 World Cup cycles.

This time, in 2017, as the Boks were about to get thrashed 38-3 by Ireland in Dublin, Erasmus and Nienaber were still coaching Munster.

They took the Bok job in 2018 and won just seven from 14 Tests, including a heavy defeat to Wales in Cardiff to finish the year. A year later and the Boks were World Cup winners, world champions and ranked one in the world. A four-year plan does not determine World Cup success.

Former Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer refused to entertain any new blood in 2015 and said that if a player wasn’t in his system a year before the 2015 World Cup, he wouldn’t be going to the World Cup. The Lions were the form team in South Africa in 2015 and won everything in South Africa, but Meyer refused to pick one Lions player and his failure to win the World Cup defined his national tenure.

Nienaber, in 2021, has picked large travelling squads because of Covid and many players have been introduced to the national set-up, but few have actually played in the Test matches.

Familiarity can be a bugger and complacency will always be a Test match killer when players believe they can’t be dropped or that a new kid simply won’t get picked.

For now, it is proving a grind for any newbie to break into the Boks, but history has repeatedly shown how quickly a team of complacent winners can become stale.

Meyer made massive mistakes in 2015 and it would be a travesty if Nienaber proved as inflexible in his selections and selection criterion.

@mark_keohane

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