Age ain’t nothing but a number and form is everything, coaches like to say in American football, but in the game of rugby in South Africa, you sometimes wonder if coaches err on the side of caution when a bright new thing explodes on the scene.
South Africa used to be terribly conservative in blooding youngsters but in the modern era there is thankfully an improvement in giving the “lighties” a shot. A lot, of course, depends on the coach. Heyneke Meyer was at one end of the spectrum, picking only the tried and tested and even coaxing 37-year-old Victor Matfield out of retirement for the 2015 World Cup, and then you had a polar opposite in Dick Muir who had a devil-may-care attitude to selection and famously discovered an unknown 19-year-old called JP Pietersen in Durban club rugby and made him a World Cup winner in a year.
In Australia, it is not uncommon for raw young talent to be thrust onto the world stage. Maybe it is because they have much fewer players or it is because the coaches know a good thing when they see one.
But it can go wrong. James O’Connor was 18 when he debuted for the Wallabies in 2008 and Test rugby was old hat for him by his 21st birthday. It wasn’t long before stardom got the better of him and a series of incidents in nightclubs and airports derailed him. He last played for the Wallabies in 2013.
The All Blacks typically have the best way of ensuring a shiny new pin is the real deal or not. They have an “apprenticeship” scheme where they pick the likes of an Ardie Savea for their November tour to Europe. But he will be told beforehand that he is not going to play. The coaches can have a good examination of the youngster, and the player soaks up the environment and gets hungrier than ever for the jersey.
Lately at the Springboks, we have seen 21-year-old Sbu Nkosi called up by Allister Coetzee after a startling first season in top flight rugby while 20-year-old Curwin Bosch was with the Boks earlier this year but then released for Currie Cup duty.
In the case of Nkosi, there would have been long discussions between Sharks coach Robert du Preez and Coetzee regarding the player and his ability to take to the step up. Nkosi has it all — flawless wing play, temperament and courage, and his selection should be applauded. There should be more of these type of selections to ignite the Boks. Western Province bristle with game-breakers and it is pleasing that Dillyn Leyds has been recognised when for years Cheslin Kolbe was not.
Bosch? Well he just gets better and better and while we have been told there is a long-term plan for him and that he will get another shot with the Boks when he has brushed up his defence, Coetzee will not be able to leave him out much longer if Elton Jantjies continues to be erratic at international level, and while Handre Pollard is still way off the pace after almost two years out of rugby.
Is Bosch’s tackling that bad? It has certainly improved since it was ruthlessly exposed by the England Under 20 team last year when Bosch was at fullback for the Baby Boks, and in any case a good national coach can make a plan for a flyhalf with defensive frailties.
Andrew Mehrtens, one of the great All Black flyhalves, was a weak defender and on defence he either swopped places with the fullback or the openside flank would defend the channel. Michael Jones cut down many a ball carrier storming towards Mehrtens.
Bosch is ready and red hot. Coetzee must not shy away from making a bold call at flyhalf if Jantjies again blows hot and cold.
By Mike Greenaway
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