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No place for sentimental selections

The end of the recently concluded series between the Wallabies and British and Irish Lions should leave most rugby fans, regardless of where they are from, feeling bereft. Going into this week is a bit like arriving at the day after the conclusion of an absorbing five-day cricket test – so what are we left to focus on and talk about now?

Fortunately we are at the conclusion of what has become an exciting Super Rugby season, and the Castle Rugby Championship is just around the corner, but I have to concur with John Robbie’s view that it all amounts to more of the same. The Lions series was different because, like a World Cup, it only happens every four years, and the hype for this series was really something to behold.

In the end the better team won. The Wallabies could have won the first test had they kicked their goals, and of course they did win the second, so the third test could well have ended up being a dead rubber. But I thought that on balance the Lions were the better team across the series, and they should have won the second test had they possessed more thrust and ambition on attack.

That brings us to the subject of Brian O’Driscoll’s omission from the team for the final test. I must admit that I thought Lions coach Warren Gatland was crazy when I first heard that he had dropped O’Driscoll, news by the way which was given to me first by Jean de Villiers at a Stormers training session last Wednesday. A jack of all trades is the Bok captain, for in addition to his other strengths, it also seems he’s a bit of a news hound.

But once I started to think about it I understood Gatland’s reasoning better, and by the time the game arrived I most emphatically didn’t agree with the Stuart Barnes view that the Wallabies were suddenly favoured by the selection as it robbed the Lions of much needed experience.

The mention of De Villiers earlier was made on purpose for he is linked, through his absence, to an occasion that has directed my view that maybe sometimes too much can be made of experience and that maybe modern rugby is a game for young men.

Fortunately for the Springboks, the Stormers and De Villiers, the current captain is playing as well as at any time in his career, and is worth his place in all the teams that he is leading.

However, when Western Province broke their long trophy drought by winning last year’s Currie Cup final, De Villiers was absent. So was Schalk Burger. So was Andries Bekker. And Tiaan Liebenberg was too. In other words, the four most experienced Stormers players from the last while and the men you might have assumed were indispensable for a final where experience was supposedly going to be so important.

Those players had all been present in the 2010 final at the same Kings Park venue, when Province lost badly, but two years later it was a much younger WP team that took on a far more experienced Sharks team that included several Springboks – and they won. Deon Fourie, who hasn’t played any international rugby, led the side, the front-row was made up of 21-year-olds, and De Villiers’s place at inside centre was filled by a callow 20-year-old newcomer in Damian de Allende.

So that was one strike against the theory that age and experience is what counts in a final or big decisive game. Not for one moment am I going to argue that experience isn’t important, for it is. At this point in time, the Springboks need Jean de Villiers, and so do the Stormers.

The qualification is important though, for while I enjoy De Villiers and love watching him play, the minute he starts to look past it as a player his coaches are going to need to face the fact that time stands still for no man and do what is necessary. Last year’s Currie Cup final showed that maybe rugby is a young man’s game after all, and it started me wondering whether sometimes we make too much of an issue of experience. The emphatic Lions win in the deciding test confirmed it.

O’Driscoll is 34 years old and is not the player he was – De Villiers is better than him at this stage of their respective careers – and the focus on his defensive abilities was irrelevant in that it didn’t take into account what the coach felt he needed in order to win the match.

Another absentee from the deciding test was the injured Paul O’Connell, another Lion of considerable experience. He wasn’t missed as the Lions turned in a performance that has only once been rivaled in recent memory – and that was in the dead rubber test at Ellis Park in 2009 when, yes, the Lions were also playing without some of their more experienced men.

The message that comes out of this Lions series, and particularly the final test, is that there is no place for sentiment in selection.

The Springboks may well have been able to survive the Bryce Lawrence freak-show in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal had the coach at that time, Peter de Villiers, been prepared to do what Gatland did and ignore sentiment in his deliberations.

Even some of his fellow management were adamant in the build-up to that game that the Boks should take the field in that crucial game with as close as possible a selection to the one that had beaten the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth in the build-up to the tournament - in other words with Bismarck du Plessis as the hooker instead of John Smit, and Victor Matfield as the captain.

De Villiers based his selection on an agreement he had made two years earlier and paid no heed to current form. That just isn’t how it should be done. By contrast, Gatland was brave enough to throw sentiment out of the window. The result vindicated him and it should be seen as an object lesson on how selection should be done.

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