Faf, Elton or both? The Bok conundrum

Thumbnail

No doubt many a single malt was consumed as they warmed to their selectorial task that evening in the Shelbourne Hotel. In the end they went for Dick because of his dynamic loose play and Ireland were duly hammered in the Test, conceding tightheads at will in the scrums.

The lesson was that you do not pick players in isolation in rugby but as components in a collective that must be worth more than the sum of its parts. The question is: How do you measure a contribution when the factors involved may not be obvious? That is the key thing in picking rugby sides.

Jonny Wilkinson was one of the greatest players in recent years. He was a total flyhalf in that he could do all the basics well, including tackling like a dervish, and he read the game as only Dan Carter has done since. He was also deadly with the boot from place and drop and well deserved his World Cup win in 2003 and his fame and fortune at Toulon.

He was once asked, in public in South Africa, who was the greatest player he had played with. Without hesitation he named Mike Catt. Mike Catt? The failed Eastern Province flyhalf who sneaked a career with England and at whom we all laughed when Jonah Lomu ran through, over and around him in 1995. Surely not, Jonny, are you smoking your socks? When pushed, he explained that Catt was one of the greatest readers of the game. At inside centre he sat at Jonny’s side and acted as a second pair of eyes and a consultant.

England would call a move or decide a tactic and the set piece would commence. As the ball came to Matt Dawson, the No.9, Wilkinson’s eyes and attention were thus fixed on him and on the pass. But Catt’s eyes were still firmly on the field, scanning ruthlessly. He could see as the defence closed if there were gaps opening behind, if the opposing No.15 had drifted or a wing dropped deep. At the last moment as Jonny received the ball, Catt would start to shout. He would instruct the flyhalf to kick deep or short or skip one or whatever.

Such was the trust and confidence present that Jonny never questioned but obeyed. The result was that time after time, regardless of the line speed of their opponents, Wilkinson hurt them with the best option available. For this he received praise and honour but few knew of his secret weapon, Mike Catt.

Clive Woodward did, though, and that is why Catt now has a World Cup winner’s medal to trump the Lomu embarrassment of eight years before.

I thought of this when considering whether or not we should go with Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies for the Springboks. They have been in sublime form for the Lions and look streets ahead of what is against them. For me, the key is their decision-making. Faf is perpetual motion and clears the ball via pass, kick or sniping run with maximum speed and invariably his choice is good. In action, if not appearance, he is a mirror of the great Aaron Smith of the Kiwis. He is also as tough as nails and clearly relishes cajoling and encouraging his forwards. Elton has improved beyond belief since his sojourn in Japan, his decision-making is swift and authoritative and he now attacks the line. He also defends well, even against the big guys. All things being equal, one or both should walk in.

But remember the lessons of the past. Selection cannot be made in isolation. There was more value in Dawson’s strike than in Dick’s dynamism. Without Catt, Wilkinson was half as effective.

What are the dynamics of the Lions’ decision-making this season? Maybe one of the centres is the key to this? Maybe Faf is not the player without Elton beside him - or vice versa. I do not know. The key is that the new Bok coach, presumably Allister Coetzee, must have contacts within each franchise. He must be able to speak candidly to Johan Ackermann or Warren Whiteley and discover the dynamics of what is good with the halves.

At this level they are all potential Test players. The difference is how they make decisions and the speed with which they act. Sometimes the Rosetta Stone for this lies elsewhere. Finding out where is the trick.

*This column is dedicated to my old friend Abe Segal, an artist on and off the court and a true legend of a man. Hamba kahle.

*Robbie hosts the breakfast show on 702, weekdays 6-9am. – Saturday Star

Original source: Faf, Elton or both? The Bok conundrum

by