Why Fleckie and AJ should not give up
There seem to be a lot of disgruntled rugby players around at the moment and for good reason.
Springbok coach Rudolf Straeuli says he has a plan, but judging from the people I have
spoken to, he only seems to have communicated it to De Wet Barry.
According to the
Springbok centre, Straeuli has been in constant contact and even when Barry was left out
of the national squad for the home tests against Scotland and Argentina and did not get a
game for South Africa A, he was left in little doubt that he was still in the loop.
Of the rest, some have had their chance to impress and did not take it, others have
possibly been denied a proper chance to stake a claim.
For instance, there should be no quibble about the omission of Pieter Rossouw, who was
shown up for his lack of pace in Port Elizabeth, while Cobus Visagie made quite a few
appearances in the green and gold jersey and will have to lift his game.
But AJ Venter, the form lock in the last test of 2002, has only been used as a flank so
far this year. As one of the few players to emerge from the Twickenham massacre last year
with any credit, he definitely deserved a chance to show what he could do at lock.
It is debatable that Robbie Fleck is a better outside centre than Marius Joubert, but he
is definitely the next best and can play inside and out. Maybe he was not quite as sharp
as he should have been for SA A against Namibia, but then it was hardly a game tailored
Andre Snyman has had a couple of poor games, yet he is still part of the squad,
and ditto for the very ordinary (against Scotland at least) Trevor Halstead.
Make no mistake, if the sole Springbok selector was a Mr G Rich, then Venter would be
playing on Saturday, as would scrumhalf Neil de Kock, who was the incumbent Bok scrumhalf
when he was injured late last year and did quite well for South Africa A against
Fleck would be part of the group, and Ollie le Roux would definitely have been
given some game-time for SA A or the Boks before now.
But while all of this suggests the selections have been questionable, it was while
listening to Le Roux promise during our interview two weeks ago that he would go out and
prove in the Currie Cup that he is the best, that a thought struck me: Maybe this is
exactly the reaction Straeuli is looking for.
There are many different reasons why a coach does certain things. Sometimes he makes his
motives public, such as when he picks a player for a specific task, at other times he has
to keep it quiet as what he is really doing is playing mind games with the players in an
effort to get the best out of them.
I remember Roger Gardner, when he was coaching Durban Crusaders, doing this before a
National Club Tournament semifinal in 1994.
Gardner, worried that his Springbok lock
Steve Atherton and his second row partner, also a provincial player, were resting on their
laurels, started to overdo the praise of his third choice, who was really nowhere near
their standard. It had the desired effect and Atherton played really hard in the next
Anyone who has played either senior club or provincial rugby will doubtless have countless
similar stories to tell. A little bit of reverse psychology can go a long way in rugby,
and maybe, just maybe, Straeuli knows the players in question well enough to know what
will bring out their best form.
At least that is what I hope lies behind Straeuli's decisions.
He has consistently said he
knows who his top players are and he knows what he wants from them. Maybe some of those
top players at the moment fall outside the group currently playing for him.
While many would think it is dangerous to gamble or play mind-games during the
Tri-Nations, history shows that in a World Cup year the southern hemisphere competition
tends to be remembered as an irrelevance.
For example, witness the New Zealand reaction to
their exit from the 1999 World Cup.
He had coached them to a Tri-Nations triumph just a few months earlier, but that did not
save John Hart his job.
And while Nick Mallett did not have an auspicious 1999 season as coach of the Springboks,
his team came within a Stephen Larkham dropped-goal in injury time of completely erasing
the awful memory of an abysmal Tri-Nations season. The year will be remembered for the
Boks finishing third in the World Cup, rather than for their last in the Tri-Nations.
It is when you look back at 1999 that you realise that even if Straeuli is not busy
playing mind-games, the likes of Venter, Fleck and even Le Roux should not despair. For a
glance at the Tri-Nations squad that toured Australia and New Zealand at a similar stage
in the 1999 World Cup buildup shows that much can change between now and the kick-off in
No less than 13 of the players who went to the World Cup as part of the Springbok squad
did not play any part in the away leg of the Tri-Nations. Of that group, Brendan Venter,
Jannie de Beer and Ruben Kruger played well enough in the Currie Cup while the Boks were
away to earn call-ups for the home leg.
Fritz van Heerden, who returned from England to play for WP in the Currie Cup, was another
who owed his inclusion in the World Cup squad almost entirely to his Currie Cup form.
For the record, only one (Werner Swanepoel) of the four halfbacks chosen for the away leg
of the 1999 Tri-Nations was retained for the World Cup and the Springbok team that took a
28-0 klap in Dunedin in the opening match featured five players who never made it to the
main event later in the year.
There are a couple of rounds of Currie Cup rugby before the World Cup squad is selected so
those who have been left out do have plenty to play for. That is unless Straeuli just has
a mental block against certain players, like Mallett had for Hennie le Roux and the same
AJ Venter. But that is another story.
Here are the comparative squads chosen by Nick Mallett in 1999:
Away leg of Tri-Nations: Percy Montgomery, Breyton Paulse, Deon Kayser, Robbie Fleck,
Japie Mulder, Stefan Terblanche, Pieter Muller, Pieter Rossouw, Braam van Straaten, Gaffie
du Toit, Dave von Hoesslin, Werner Swanepoel, Gary Teichmann (captain), Andre Venter,
Rassie Erasmus, Krynauw Otto, Selborne Boome, Cobus Visagie, Albert van den Berg, Ollie le
Roux, Corne Krige, Willie Meyer, Mark Andrews, Os du Randt, Anton Leonard.
World Cup squad: Montgomery, Paulse, Kayser, Fleck, Muller, Wayne Julies, Brendan Venter,
Muller, Terblanche, Rossouw (Pieter), Kaya Molatana, Jannie de Beer, Henry Honiball, Joost
van der Westhuizen (captain), Swanepoel, Leonard, Bob Skinstad, Venter, Ruben Kruger,
Erasmus, Otto, Van den Berg, Andrews, Fritz van Heerden, Visagie, Adrian Garvey, Chris
Rossouw, Drotske, Du Randt, Le Roux.
Note: Players injured between Tri-Nations and World Cup were Corne Krige and Selborne
Dropped were: Mulder, Van Straaten, Teichmann, Meyer, Du Toit, Von Hoesslin.
Added for World Cup were: Venter, De Beer, Van der Westhuizen, Kruger, Skinstad, Julies,
Molatana, Van Heerden, Garvey and Honiball.
Used in home leg of Tri-Nations but did not play overseas leg or World Cup: Andre Snyman,