When it was announced a couple of months ago that Schalk Burger would be leaving Saracens to return to South Africa, someone in my rugby WhatsApp group quipped: “Just in time for the World Cup...”
Said chirp was a derisory reference to another Schalk: Schalk Brits, the hooker picked up on the ultimate free transfer by Springbok director of rugby and head coach Rassie Erasmus to play for the Boks, having retired from all rugby after leaving – you’ve guessed it – Saracens, last year.
Brits is now at the Bulls, playing effervescent rugby and charming referees with his honesty and personal apologies after the odd barney with an opposition hooker. Long story short, the Brits experiment seems to be working out for the Bulls.
But if we’ve learnt anything about South African rugby, it is that the exception almost always becomes the rule.
If Johan Ackermann picks his son for his team, Robert du Preez can pick all three of his sons for his; if former Bulls chief executive Barend van Graan’s son becomes a top coach at his father’s union, Swys de Bruin lays a similar foundation for his; and if a 38-year-old Brits works out for the Bulls, a 34-year-old Morné Steyn is sure to do the same.
The announcement of Steyn’s return from Stade Français – for a two-year contract that’ll conclude when he’s 37 – was accompanied by his impressive stats for the Bulls and the Boks.
That those numbers are well in the past seemed to matter less than the fervent hope that he’ll be a back-to-the-future success of sorts.
In all earnestness, one can see where the Bulls are coming from. The player exodus this week alone means steady hands will be needed during the biggest transition season in South African rugby next season.
Steyn’s return was this week sold in some quarters as a mentorship behind-the-scenes role. But, in practice, this is hardly the case as he’ll probably start and remain there the moment an under-pressure Pote Human has to fight to hold on to his job.
You have to ask what Manie Libbok – who has patiently waited for his chance behind Handré Pollard for the past three years, only to find out that his bridging course just got longer by two years – thinks.
Clearly, the message being sent to Libbok is that the Bulls don’t trust him to ascend to the position for which they have been “grooming” him. On seeing the word ‘trust’, some may agree with the Bulls, having witnessed Libbok’s brain farts in recent months.
But if he doesn’t get time in the saddle, apart from when Pollard is injured or being rested by the Boks, how is he supposed to iron out the over-eagerness issues that are overshadowing his otherwise outrageous gifts?
Better yet, how is he going to do that next year, when the whole of Loftus is belting out Tina Turner’s Simply the Best every time Steyn slots a goal kick while they yearn for him to roll back the Super Rugby glory days?
The problem with these never-ending bridging courses is that the really talented students drop out before they get to the Promised Land. Also, what happens to Libbok when the next Pollard from Paarl Gym comes along and he’s not even starting at the Bulls?
As a black person who likes to think he’s involved in rugby, I have to ask why these youngsters being parked in “development” are almost always black. Gifted players like Damian Willemse and Curwin Bosch have this year played second fiddle to players clearly less talented than they are.
Anywhere else in the world, they’d be tripping over themselves to get them up to speed as soon as possible – here, they wait for years while nepotism or sentiment run their course.