In defence of Zane
It’s not always easy being different, especially in rugby.
It’s not easy when you have a different hairstyle, a different look, a different feel about you.
It's also not easy to do your best, train your hardest and do exactly what your coach asks of you, and then watch an unwarranted and totally unnecessary social media storm burst into life because you just had your name read out from a team-sheet.
Now imagine being Zane Kirchner, the seemingly universally unpopular choice for fullback this weekend.
You may be a fan or you may not be, but either way the type of abuse that Zane Kirchner has received in recent times is unwarranted.
Forget the fact that no player selects himself, or that Zane has hardly set a foot wrong in a Springbok jersey. The crowds out there bay for his blood. They take to social networks to vent their frustration using all kinds of disparaging nicknames.
A little bit of insight could go a long way in changing that. A more open-minded look at the situation will show that Kirchner has had a great season thus far. It will show that Bjorn Basson could be struggling with an injury, and may well not be 100% fit. Even if that is not the case, it may show that Basson’s frailties on defence are a worry.
A little more analysis may well reveal that to move Willie le Roux to wing – ironically the position where he made his name in Super Rugby over the past two years – may be an excellent tactic, and for those who suggest it stifles his attacking ability, it certainly didn’t do so in the southern hemisphere’s premier domestic competition this year.
Sitting in Brisbane, I can't quite believe the reaction that Kirchner's selection has elicited back home. Fans sometimes act as if the Boks are unbeatable, as if they are a force to contend with for any side and as if they should simply win everything.
But anyone who takes a look at South Africa’s record in Brisbane will realise that this is not the case. We have struggled in Australia, won only three games since 1994 and have never won outside Perth in this time.
South Africa has played Australia 14 times outside Perth, and lost all 14 – including the seven at Suncorp Stadium.
It's hard to see any reason behind South African rugby fans' stubborn belief that the Springboks should always beat the Wallabies. They seem to think that the weakness of Super Rugby teams like the Rebels and Force equates to weakness of the national team. They also interpret Australia’s poor record in South Africa as meaning certain victory for the Boks in Australia, completely forgetting what poor travellers the Boks are.
It is easy to want the Boks to win every game. Every Springbok coach has been trying their hardest to do so since readmission, but few have come close. We have had the odd times when it has come right – the 1998, 2009 and other blips on the radar – but in reality we fool ourselves into thinking we are a lot stronger than we actually are.
Despite that, we also seem to think we know better than the man in charge.
Heyneke Meyer dared to pick Zane Kirchner, and the whole country seems to be up in arms. There is no conspiracy here, just a plan that has been worked out based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.
It’s a plan which may or may not work, and which may or may not see Zane become a hero or villain.
Like with the elevation of Flip van der Merwe or the return of Bismarck du Plessis, it is purely based on the strengths of the players in the squad and a balanced approach.
The plan relies on accurate kicking - something the All Blacks did so well to make Australia look ordinary in Sydney – and Kirchner’s solid approach to any aerial attack that comes his way will be vital.
When asked about the public criticism on Wednesday, Kirchner revealed – as one colleague remarked – a flash of anger and then a shake of the head. He has played his heart out so many times before, and those who simply don’t like his hairstyle, his playing style or anything else about him, refuse to even acknowledge as much when he does well.
All that Kirchner can do is to try his best, follow the plan laid out by the coach and play what is in front of him. It is the same instruction that goes out to every player in the side.
And if you consider that Meyer has a 70% win record (not counting the two draws) at the moment, surely he should be given a bit of slack.
Other coaches have come to Suncorp and lost badly (remember Jake White and 49-0). Stronger teams have failed when public perception was on their side.
Meyer’s plan may or may not work, but either way the odds are stacked against the Boks.
Kirchner can only do his best.
It is just sad to know that even if he happens to win the test single-handedly, it won’t be enough for some fans. Some are just bent on destroying a player who has done nothing to deserve such abuse.
It’s not easy being Zane Kirchner. That alone is a sad indictment of the state of South African rugby right now. Sadder still is the fact that it is also becoming increasingly uneasy just to be a reasonable Springbok fan.