SIMNIKIWE XABANISA says Allister Coetzee’s decision not to recall Ruan Combrinck shows his inability to make sensible left-field calls.
One blustery night in 2004 in Gosford, a tiny Australian town north of Sydney, former Springbok coach Jake White held court over drinks with the South African media on all things rugby.
It was a most informative and at times odd session – he did claim centre De Wet Barry was the country’s best fetcher at one stage – when Bok coaches and rugby hacks could still have informal chats.
The one topic he particularly warmed to was selection, which is considered his second best gift after building teams from the ashes. White shared such theories as the late Kitch Christie’s belief that ‘the first two names on your team are the tighthead and the reserve tighthead’, and his own about the best players not necessarily making up the best teams.
What he may have left out was how crucial left-field selections are for an international coach. These gut-feel selections are those inspired coach’s calls which leave the rest of us wondering if he’s lost his marbles but somehow work.
This is the kind of selection that almost runs parallel to whether a player has enough experience or is in form, it’s a sixth sense that the white-hot cauldron of Test rugby might bring out the best in him regardless of how much he’s played or if he looks sharp or not.
While he may have invested in some questionable ideas himself – he flirted with the thought he could get by with Jaco van der Westhuyzen at flyhalf and without Victor Matfield at lock – White had some pearlers.
How many people would have brought back the exiled Percy Montgomery and Os du Randt – then on a comeback trail from retirement – like he did in 2004?
White’s best call at that time was probably Joe van Niekerk, who was always injured during Super Rugby and hardly played for the Stormers. Yet not only did he always made the Bok team, he actually cooked in the Tri-Nations.
Looking at Bok coach Allister Coetzee’s most recent attempts to quell the debate that won’t die down – why Ruan Combrinck can’t get a game for the Boks when even Handré Pollard can – one can only come to the conclusion that he hasn’t got the ability to make left-field calls that make sense.
Coetzee’s explanation was that Combrinck didn’t play much for the Lions and hadn’t started any of his games for his Japanese club.
The obvious counter to that is Pollard – having had knee, shoulder and ankle surgery in the last two seasons – had played just a handful of games for the Bulls and looked distinctly out of sorts. His selection gave the impression all he had to do to play for the Boks was fall out of his hospital bed.
Coetzee then said Pollard had shown the necessary sharpness in the Bok camp, a theory so disproved by his one-off performance against the All Blacks he is now lucky to catch a Currie Cup game with the Bulls off the bench.
Forget the rumblings about Pollard’s SA Rugby contract dictating that he not play Currie Cup rugby, if this was Coetzee’s left-field selection then he failed the test miserably.
What makes these calls work is the coach’s ability to see something the rest of us don’t in a player. But Pollard’s 20 minutes against the All Blacks not only left us none the wiser, it did little to help him crack the nod for a struggling Bulls side.
Unfortunately, Coetzee has a history of not exactly dazzling with his ‘inspired’ selections. You have to remember this is the man who brought back the monochrome Morné Steyn and played the lumbering Willem Alberts at openside flank in reaction to the Boks’ horrendous season last year.
Ironically, if ever there was a left-field call to be made it would be to pick Combrinck. I don’t know him from a bar of soap, but he has a reputation for marching to his own beat and being difficult to manage if he hasn’t bought into a coach or his systems.
Man-managing that situation would go some way towards suggesting Coetzee can go the path less-travelled when it comes to selection.