Rugby in South Africa is arguably one of the most fanatically supported sporting codes at schools level anywhere in the world. Where else do top level commentators regularly refer to players schools-of-origin almost as a matter of course?
Passions run just that little bit higher in the Western Province, not only because it is the cradle of the game in this country – and, as an obvious by-product, there is a greater concentration of schools widely regarded as top-flight exponents of the sport – but also because this small province’s name has over the years become a byword for the most exciting running version of the game.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the composition and performance of the local provincial schools sides is a matter of heated year-round debate. Sadly, of late, the word “debate” has been replaced, first with “concern” and now “fury” in discussions surrounding the 2011 Craven Week squad. Such is the widespread concern that it has long since transcended fiercely-defended individual loyalties.
Normally, the cracks of dissent are, however, papered over by annual celebrations surrounding the taken-for-granted successes of the different age-group teams, largely symbolised by those of the Craven Week squad. Not this year. The last bolts keeping the wheels attached to the axles have finally sheered off.
A cautionary note: the criticism which follows is in no way whatsoever aimed at the players selected. The only responsibility they bear is that they made themselves available for selection.
What has caused the inglorious decline in the fortunes in the performance of the Western Province Craven Week side ?
Since two different sets of people (the selectors and the team management) are involved in answering this question, this question is best answered on two separate levels.
1. Squad selection
Just about every province tends to build its side around one or more in-form school sides, Grey College in the Free State being the most extreme example. This year Waterkloof provided the Blue Bulls’ spine, but it may well be Affies’ turn in 2012. Grey High and Framesby feature prominently in the Eastern Province, and Border can bank on at least one of Selborne, Dale or Queen's having a good side in any given year. In stark contrast, after finishing Craven Week 2010 unbeaten, Boland, lacking a dominant core-school this year, drew on no fewer than 14 schools. And just look where it got them !
The selectors’ ability to recognise their core teams determines the relative success of their sides. I say “relative”, because no matter how good that core side is, the chances of provinces with smaller pools of players beating traditional giants are generally pretty slim. For example, like it or not, Border are unlikely to beat, say, the Blue Bulls, no matter how big (and cumbersome) their front five are.
In Western Province the go-to guys, much to the southern suburbs quartet’s ever-increasing dismay, are always Paarl Gym, Paarl Boys’ High and Paul Roos, simply because each boasts large numbers of players, the cream of whom inevitably rises to the top, ensuring enduring success. This year Boishaai are manifestly streets ahead of the rest, Gym are rebuilding after a magnificent run which lasted several seasons and Paul Roos are woefully out of form. These things happen from time to time,
But this escaped the selectors, who selected seven Paul Roos players. The disturbing factor is that by doing so this year they have added a whole new pile of wood to the fire raging around the distinct impression that Paul Roos forms the core of the WP Craven Week side, come what may. While it might usually just be written off as sour grapes on the part of some schools, even the Paarl ones, who contributed a similar number of players, are now up in arms.
A brief look at the success rate of the eight WP super league sides reveals that Paul Roos (Won 6 Drawn 1 Lost 6) are second last. The only side below them, and that largely because of a murderous tour of New Zealand in March, is Boland Landbou (17-6-1-10), who, ironically, beat Paul Roos! On the other hand, the second most successful outfit is Rondebosch, the side with the most reason to complain since they did not have a single player in this year’s Craven Week squad.
One excuse the selectors might offer would presumably be the composition of the elite squad that practices throughout the summer. But they pick it and so should be big enough to admit their mistakes. Anyway, this year additional players were included in trials from the early stages.
A second one would be that the players were picked because they formed such effective units within the team structure at their schools (e.g. the centres work well with the wings) that it would make sense to utilise these established combinations. Well, this year’s most controversial unit/combination/whatever – the Paul Roos 11, 12, 13 and 14 – has scored a pathetic 13 tries between them in thirteen games, the one selected for SA Schools in 2010 having managed just one of them! Note that the Boishaai tighthead, for example, has scored ten!
The standard retort to that is that their backline has been so beset with injuries that it’s not surprising that’s all they've scored. But that immediately nullifies the claim that they were a “unit” in the first place, as does the fact that one of them was, until the end of 2010, playing for a school in the Helderberg, which is pretty well a suburb of Stellenbosch as far as Paul Roos are concerned. Maybe Gideon Meiring, capped for the 2011 SA Academy XV, saw all this coming when he left the school for Krugersdorp.
This reminds me of the teacher umpiring his school’s 1st XI, of which he was coach. Early in the innings his son, the star everything in the eleven, snicks the ball into the wicketkeeper’s gloves and the fielding side appeals. Loudly. Not out, the teacher rules: the ball hit him on the pad. Well, the fielding side points out, we were actually appealing for a leg before wicket decision. Not out, he replies: the ball hit his bat. (This incident actually occurred.) The moral: you can't have it both ways.
To their credit, the selectors also picked the Boys’ High hooker along with two of their locks, one of whom gained his place through outstanding showings at the trials. So sometimes they do get it right? Read more about that below.
Finally, you're always going to be running a risk picking players from outside the top tier of schools. Since such decisions require extraordinary care, it was surprising to see a hugely gifted specialist inside centre (the playmaker in an 11 – 14 who have registered 57 tries in 2011) chosen as outside centre and a flyhalf nominated as the last line of defence. Neither choice proved remotely successful, simply because neither appeared to have even a basic understanding of the responsibilities that went with his position. That’s not only not fair on all the other prospective candidates, but, far more importantly, on the two youngsters themselves.
The last word goes to the selectors of the SA Academy XV who, amongst a few others, deemed two particular players overlooked for WP Craven Week selection good enough for national colours: try-scorer extraordinaire Edwin Sass and gutsy centre Johnny Kotze.
2. Team selection for the first game
First impressions last. Even after the rumblings that surrounded the selection of the squad, a good showing by the first-choice XV in its opening game would have gone some way to silencing the restlessness down south. Even the most sceptical critic could still be placated to some extent, were the method in the apparent selection madness to shine through after those crucial seventy minutes.
Ignoring this potential lifeline, the team management for some reason known only to themselves opted to field a selection that bore all the hallmarks of an extended session in some tik den.
Not only did they endorse the selection committee’s highly debatable Paul Roos fetish, but they omitted the one lad who could just possibly rescue their excuse for a backline, the first choice flyhalf.
Then, there’s the matter of the other unit: the hooker plus the locks. Fair enough, the preferred No.2 started, but surely by the time he'd started hitting the spectators with his line-out throws, their mistake should have filtered down to the management.
I'm not second guessing them, but since you've used one combo, why not the other one ? They had the Boys’ High hooker plus his two locks, who presumably have actually met each other during their time up Auret Street and wouldn't require a GPS to find each other at line-out time. Plus one was the No.1 choice lock in the province. Need help joining the dots? Well, the No.2 hooker did get on eventually and rubbed some noses in the hard Kimberley turf by scoring a try too.
And so the potentially sublime was reduced to a surreal mess. If the two groups involved were honourable types, they would have resigned on the spot by now.
Pliny the Elder wrote “Semper African aliquid novi adferre” (Africa always brings us something new) around two millennia ago. Heaven only knows what he would have made of this!
By Tony Stoops
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