SA rugby playing a risky game
A weekend with more than a few twists and turns to mull over following the Super Rugby final, the return of Fourie du Preez and the exit of Piri Weepu.
Firstly to the final, where the Chiefs became worthy champions for the second year running, the fourth team after the Blues, Crusaders and Bulls to successfully defend a title.
For 63 minutes it looked like they would not, as the Brumbies forged what could have, possibly should have been a winning lead. They disrupted the Chiefs' flow of possession through the first hour, with George Smith turning in another extraordinary performance.
They grabbed most of their chances…might have even had a few more, but a 22-12 lead in a tight game was handy enough.
What happened in the last 20 minutes can be put down to a variety of factors, but the Brumbies buckled in the face of a Chiefs rally that owed much to character, resolve, adjusted tactics and, most importantly, impact off the bench.
It is hard to say how much of the Brumbies' fade was down to the travel factor. Gracious in defeat, they refused to use it as an excuse, but you have to think that when the tide started to turn, the bodies would have been less able to respond.
They might have been able to counter it to a degree, but they simply did not have the quality coming out of the dugout that was available to the Chiefs.
A classic example was at halfback. The All Blacks have for some time now subscribed to the theory that it is extremely difficult to the point of being nigh impossible for a scrumhalf to perform to full effect for more than an hour. The speed of the game, and the need to move quickly from breakdown to breakdown sap the energy and after an hour a good replacement is essential.
The Chiefs were able to introduce August Pulu, who made an immediate impact with his sniping runs. Jake White felt he had to persist with Nic White and the Brumbies number nine became increasingly error prone and rattled.
The Chiefs were able to bring an All Black loosie, Sam Cane, and an All Black prop, Ben Afeaki, off the bench.
Robbie Robinson also made a telling contribution from fullback, whereas Jesse Mogg, who appeared to fatigue quite badly, also made a couple of bad mistakes in the frantic final stages.
Proof that rugby is a 22-man game these days.
Still it was a pretty good final, and the trophy stays in New Zealand for the 12th time.
The Chiefs bid farewell to a bunch of good players, including their admirable skipper Craig Clarke, the brilliant but chronically injury prone Richard Kahui, Lelia “Flash” Masaga and Toby Smith, who has been lured across the Tasman by the prospect of a Wallaby jersey.
They will take some replacing, but there is a 50-50 chance Sonny Bill Williams will be back next year, according to the man himself, and a 99 per cent probability he will return in 2015.
The Brumbies have had a great resurgence under Jake White and his experienced sidekick Laurie Fisher, and should be a contender in Super Rugby for the foreseeable future.
The morning after came the All Black and Springbok squad announcements and I have to say I was surprised by the exit of Piri Weepu from the ABs, and just as surprised by the recall of Fourie du Preez for the Boks.
Both had been whispers in the wind, but it is sad when a guy like Weepu, who has given great service has to step aside, but, as suggested before, the All Black bosses believe halfback has become a young man’s position.
The selectors have conceded Weepu is having difficulty with the pace of the game, and the time is right to bring in the precocious TJ Perenara.
So it’s an interesting contrast to the decision to restore Fourie du Preez to the Springbok ranks.
Anyone who has read my work in the past will know that prior to his departure for Japan I was one of Fourie’s greatest admirers, and regarded him for three or four years as the best halfback in the world.
But Du Preez is now 31, a year older than Weepu, and he has been playing in the less pressurised realm of Japanese club rugby.
It is asking a lot of him to come back an impact on the Boks, and will test the old “class is permanent” adage.
The hardest part to understand is that he is only available for the Springboks' three home tests.
Even allowing for the possibility that this selection is a precursor to a permanent return to South Africa down the track, I find it extraordinary that a player could be picked in such circumstances, but concede I may have to eat that come TRC time if Fourie finds his old form and plays a blinder.
Still, South Africa continue to play a risky game by picking offshore based players.
Firstly they are playing a different season, so the European-based players in particular are not getting a great deal of down time.
They are playing a different style of game, in different conditions.
They come back and they block the door on upcoming talent, surely an impediment to the ongoing succession planning that should be part and parcel of a national strategy, and they stand in the way of players who have stayed loyal to their Super Rugby and Currie Cup teams.
The New Zealand Rugby Union maintains an unbending stance that the integrity of the domestic competitions has to be protected.
The NZRU knows that as soon as they allow All Blacks to be picked from overseas there will be a rush for the door, and the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, the provincial unions and their two competitions will suffer overall.
It is a policy fewer and fewer rugby fans in New Zealand disagree with, despite the fact that we too are losing a lot of players offshore. The difference is that most of New Zealand's truly elite players are still playing rugby in New Zealand. It’s a good way of finding out who really has the burning desire to wear the black jersey.
I think we are increasingly seeing the downside of the Saru position with the exodus of quality players from the South African scene, many of whom still see themselves playing for the South Africa. Yes, you have great depth, but that will be increasingly tested unless Saru changes its policy.