Siyabonga Ntshingila
Siyabonga Ntshingila

Wanted: Flyers to don green and gold

Now let me start by saying that I don’t really believe JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana are done as wingers for the Bokke.

But if the experiments with them at outside centre prove successful, and there is no reason to believe they won’t, we could get to the international part of the season with a whole crop of youngsters having emerged from the considerable shadow of their legacy.

Let’s face it, Habana and Pietersen have been ridiculously successful as a wing pairing for the Bokke. They complemented each other well. One a pace merchant whose work rate improved steadily through the years, the other a more complete footballer, brilliant on defence, brilliant positioning, not quite an outright speedster, but deceptively fast for his languid running style.

But after seven years the toll was starting to show. Habana (through pressure on himself more than anything) was becoming that unfortunate example of a legend who has lost confidence in his own abilities. He tried, it came off more than not, but he just wasn’t the player he was. Injuries and a slight sense of complacency seemed to account for JPP’s lost cutting edge. I personally would have had him sent to fullback, he has the positional sense and kicking game for that role, but given the paucity of centre talent at the Sharks, and the number of contenders for that position at international level, I cannot begrudge them their choice.

The move to outside, a natural home for a winger winding down his career, is certain to revitalise their careers. But it must also cause us to pause and evaluate who is in line to take their places, even if not quite this year.

Lwazi Mvovo and Bjorn Basson seem to be most pundits’ favourites. I would include myself in that. Mvovo did not have the best time of it in green and old Down Under last year, but then again, he didn’t really have much he could have done about that. A big lad, he is seriously fast and is not shy of looking for work. Some still question his positioning on defence, but he is no worse than his peers here, and as with most, the tackles he makes tend to go unheralded.

Bjorn Basson is an entirely different prospect. He is an old school type winger. He has gas. He has an eye for the gap, a devastating side step, and most of all, a keen sense of anticipation. He has the feel for opportunity that you just cannot train. And he’s a beast under the high ball. You don’t score all those tries playing the Griquas if you are a muppet. His defence is somewhat below par. He isn’t a bad defender, but is just about adequate at Super Rugby level, and needs to kick on in this aspect to be a serious Bok contender.

Frans Hougaard has been moved to scrum half permanently it seems, and I for one applaud that. There have been too many instances of players in SA becoming victims of their own versatility (see Brent Russell for a prime example) and it’s encouraging to see a player being backed to perform in just the one.

Gerhard vd Heever has moved to the Stormers to try and re-ignite a career that has stagnated somewhat. The boy has pace, but the green and gold requires more. Lionel Mapoe, as well, needs to step up and start living up to the potential that saw him embroiled in a tug of war between the Cheetahs and a number of wealthier provinces for his services. He is much like JP Pietersen in that he is well rounded in all his attributes instead of being massively strong in just one. Injuries and playing for a struggling team (in last year’s Super Rugby at least) have not helped his cause, but his career is in his own hands and this year is a good time to stake a claim.

The Ndungane brothers remain available if cool, experienced-guaranteed 7/10 players are needed in a crisis, but everyone knows they are not the permanent solution. Still, given that pace has never been their strong point, the coming years won’t see their value diminished much. There’s no better example of the value of doing the basics well and working hard than these two.

I also like the look of Rayno Benjamin from the Cheetahs. He has the basic skill set and a hungry approach to his wing play, but currently lacks the polish needed for a step-up.

I must say I would be surprised if the incumbent wings were replaced permanently this year, short of Mvovo and Basson (my personal favourites) pulling up trees every week that is. Their experience remains invaluable and they remain world class players. Let’s also not forget that they remain quite youthful. We aren’t talking men in the twilight of their careers here. But this year is also as good a time as any to start blooding in depth.