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Where to now, Bokke?


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

Now that the tears of despair from Sunday’s colossal fiasco of a rugby match have somewhat dried, I’m forcing myself to momentarily break away from the wallowing to peek into South Africa’s rugby future. And I like what I see.

But before I offer my assessment of SA Rugby’s immediate outlook, please allow me a brief rant over the gargantuan display of incompetence that resulted in Boks’ defeat on Sunday.  And if you think I’m referring to the inept performance of a certain Kiwi ref, you’d be wrong.

I am, in fact, referring to the IRB’s Referee Board headed up by another Kiwi, Paddy O’Brien, that seems intent on allowing such a woeful display of adjudication on the world’s biggest stage to go unpunished. This is not the first time Bryce Lawrence has been abysmal, although Sunday’s level of incompetence was nothing short of mind-blowing. The official stance of the IRB is that they won’t comment on the individual performances of referees, but we can tell that by his non-selection, even as an “assistant referee” in the remaining matches, they too acknowledge how badly he messed up.

The IRB needs to man up and end his career. Finish and klaar. Just as he was responsible for ending the careers of several players and coaches on Sunday. If you screw up that royally in such a significant game, the only time you should be allowed near a whistle again is when a Bok fan is performing an entirely unpleasant intervention with it. New Zealand are known to have produced some of the finest rugby players to have ever graced the game. Referees? Not so much. Just think back to Paul Honiss “the Horrible” and when Steve Walsh Jnr was still a coke-snorting Kiwi.

This tournament has been marred by a standard of refereeing that, for me, has reached new lows. Not even the two best referees, Alain Rolland and Craig Joubert, have been exempt from delivering mediocre performances, regularly missing forward passes and skew lineout throws.

The IRB needs a serious rethink of its performance measurement and fixture awarding process, especially when it comes to the World Cup. The message should be clear: get rid of the rubbish and enter the era of professionalism where there are stern consequences for poor performances and not just benign raps over the knuckles.

Whew, ok now that we got that out the way, lets have a look at what the future holds for SA Rugby, in light of the number of senior players hanging up their boots and the almost certainly to-be-revised coaching team.

When England won the World Cup in 2003, the years that followed were pretty painful for supporters, even as they stumbled to a final appearance in France, 2007. They had a few “players of a generation” that either retired straight after the 2003 triumph or faded off soon after, to leave a gaping hole of talent in the national team. A fate some would worry about for this team of Springboks.

But if we have a closer look at the retiring legends of the current team and who their likely replacements are, South Africa look to be in pretty decent shape.  With John Smit off to earn some pounds in the twilight of his career and Victor Matfield set to be come the President of South Africa, (if I had my way), we’re fortunate enough to have two world-class replacements in Bismark du Plessis and Andries Bekker.

The Bismarck v Smit debate will rage forever now that Boks have failed in their defence of the World Cup. But to those detractors, I would offer that starting Bismark on Sunday would not have yielded a different result, and I believe South Africa would have been a difficult side to beat in any of the remaining matches. In Bismarck, South Africa will have the premier hooker in world rugby for the next five-or-so years, and lead a front-row that is still laden with talent, either side of him.

With Matfield’s number five jersey now vacant, the pine-tree that is Andries Bekker will slot in without question to fill the legend’s boots in locking the scrum, and marshalling the lineouts. Bekker, until his untimely injury, had shown to be one of the form locks in the Super Rugby competition, and with 24 international caps under his belt, is already an experienced campaigner at this level who will hopefully mature into a master of the same pedigree as Victor Matfield.

The number four jersey is where a bit of inexperience may yet manifest, if Danie Rossouw is no longer eligible for selection due to his overseas commitments. Like a fine wine, Danie seemed to get better with age as he took the opportunity when tendonitis ended Bakkies Botha’s campaign. Danie has a year or two left in those legs as a lock, and the Boks shouldn’t be afraid to use him until the battery runs out.

Bakkies, although defiant over his international future as he rides off to collect some euros in French club rugby, should be put out to pasture as an understudy to Bekker and Rossouw is sought. Keeping him for the odd 40-minute appearance will do no justice to the team’s ambitions. The most promising of prospects is Gerhard Mostert who had an enterprising Tri-Nations this year, although behind him is not much in the way of world class locking potential.

In the loose-forwards, Henrich Brussouw and Schalk Burger pick themselves but leave somewhat of quandary at eighth man where Pierre Spies has failed to impress in key matches. A reformed wing, Spies has been found wanting in traditional eighth man play, often nowhere to be seen when cover tackles are required. The short-term solution is to rotate Juan Smith and Schalk Bruger in the role until a new starting eighth man can be found.

South Africa has never been short of quality loosies, and I’m sure it wont be long before an incumbent is found – although one must feel for Duane Vermeulen who was injured ahead of the World Cup and could have staked a claim to show what he can do on the international stage.

At scrumhalf, the new coach – whomever that may be – should thank Fourie du Preez for his services to the Green and Gold and wish him on his merry way to Japanese club NTT Docomo. For all his experience and achievements, the time has come to crown a new prince of the South African backline, Francois Hougaard. Although making his presence felt on the wing, scrumhalf is Hougie’s preferred position and any opportunity to get him more involved in the run of play, should be taken. I expect Hougaard will one-day be spoken of as a better player than Fourie du Preez.

At flyhalf, some may feel we face a conundrum with the kicking machine that is Morne Steyn, yet I believe the answer to be quite simple. When Francois Steyn is landing kicks from 60 meters, what do we need Morne Steyn for? As a flyhalf who has struggled to get his backline away, Morne Steyn should not be part of the new coach’s plans, if it involves any form of expansive rugby. This is the time to push him to the bench and let younger, more creative flyhalves like Elton Jantjies or Pat Lambie marshal the backline.

Lambie has shone for the Sharks in the number ten jersey, but his imperious display at the back in this World Cup may just keep wearing number 15 for a long time to come. This opens the way for a number of talented flyhalves to join the Bok ranks, although Jantjies probably leads the way.

With Lambie at fullback, Francois Steyn may yet revert to inside centre, a position he made his own following the injury to Jean de Villiers – although De Villiers was outstanding in the quarterfinal and will not give up the jersey without a fight. If he does retain the number 12 spot, Lambie should move to flyhalf with Steyn at the back.  Of the remaining positions, only Habana looks to be in doubt of losing his place, but if he puts in some comeback performances, that should see him in the team for some time to come.

So with a revised look to the team, like the one mentioned above, the Boks look in good shape to take on all comers in the next few years. Bar one or two positions where talented newcomers will need to grow into the role, the Boks have good, if not great players to choose from.

The question that then remains is that of the coaching staff. The current coach, and two assistants will most likely be seeking alternative employment, come 31 December 2011, when their contracts expire. No doubt, the search is already on for their replacements, with Western Province coach Alistair Coetzee and current Bok technical coach Rassie Erasmus already having put their name forward. Even Jake White has reared his head publicly, stating he would leave his Brumbies role to take over the coaching helm of the Boks, even with the still frosty relationship he enjoys with Saru.

In my opinion, any one of these coaches would be a mistake and a missed opportunity. We need SA Rugby to swallow its pride and appoint a foreign coach, preferably a New Zealander. We just don’t have the technical coaching skill in this country to take the talented pool of players to the heights that are being achieved by the All Blacks. South Africa has never been short of raw talent, something akin to 15 rough diamonds. And for years, as uncut diamonds were exported to be cut and polished by people with the necessarily skill, so too do the Boks need to look to a foreign head rugby coach. Whether SA rugby has the balls to do as the Australian Rugby Union did with Robbie Deans, remains to be seen. John Mitchell, former All Blacks captain and World Cup coach hasn’t exactly hidden his aspirations of coaching internationally again, the pinnacle of any coaches trade. So it wont be surprising to hear his name in the mix, as a serious option.

Nick Mallet is without a coaching role, although I suspect he would rather gargle hornets than deal with SA rugby again, and Warren Gatland hasn’t decided his coaching future, albeit with an eye on the All Blacks role.

With SA Rugby, no one can really predict their next move, or whether “only rugby considerations” will be taken into account with the new coaching team’s selection. Even if it is as assistant coach, the Boks need a fresh pair of eyes and a different thinking mind, if they are to every play the kind of rugby we all dream of. DM


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