While the first Springbok squad of 2008 may represent new beginnings for four players – not to mention the coach and his two assistants – the true tale of the 30 who made the cut is the six comeback kids.
Kevin McCallum reports for the Sunday Independent…
Between them, Gcobani Bobo, Conrad Jantjes, Adrian Jacobs, Joe van Niekerk, Bolla Conradie and Tonderai Chavhanga have played almost 90 Test matches. They also have a list of injuries that is almost as long, with at least three crucial ligament injuries, a hamstring tear here and there, and an achilles tendon that was almost damaged beyond repair.
It’s a minor miracle that two of them are still playing and even more of a relief that they chose to stick it out in South Africa.
Van Niekerk is one of those who was so nearly lost to South Africa after he had signed a three-year contract with Northampton. They cancelled his contract at the last minute, citing concerns over a spinal injury he picked up last year. His agent, mother Cathy, sent over evidence to dispute this, but the Saints chose to cancel the contract via email. Legal proceedings are currently in progress, but Northampton did Van Niekerk a favour, even if they didn’t know it.
He returned to where it had all began, at the Lions, and showed that at 27 he had married the enthusiasm and skill of his youth with maturity. He still has the best offload in South African rugby.
It seems a lifetime ago that Harry Viljoen called up Van Niekerk to his Springbok squad for the 2001 Tri-Nations. Van Niekerk was only the third-choice eighthman at the Lions and had not yet played a Super rugby match, yet he made his debut in the rain at Newlands and was a beacon of hope on that miserable Cape Town day.
He was the Springboks’ best player at the World Cup in 2003, until he destroyed his knee ligaments against Samoa and was sent home. Van Niekerk played 23 Tests under Jake White, but the back injury that so worried Northampton kept him out of the World Cup.
At the Lions this year, Eugene Eloff has used Van Niekerk at flank and eighthman, and if Peter de Villiers is looking to start with an experienced loose trio against Wales this week, he could do worse than to consider Juan Smith, Luke Watson and Van Niekerk.
Jantjes made his debut a week after Van Niekerk in 2001 and was named Man of the Match when the Boks beat the Wallabies at Loftus.
It has been said that Viljoen rushed the prodigiously talented fullback from CBC Boksburg into Test rugby, but that is a nonsense argument given the blatant talent he showed seven years ago. Viljoen kept faith with him in what was a hard time for Springbok rugby, but after the end-of-year tour in 2001 ,Jantjes had to wait four years for White to give him a run against Argentina and Wales.
Injuries plagued Jantjes down the years until a doctor finally diagnosed acute damage around his Achilles tendon. Recovery from that and a move to Cape Town revitalised the player and at the age of 28 he is in his prime. His positional play has never been better and his kicking is as accurate and long as always. He has the obstacle of Percy Montgomery to overcome should he wish to play for the Springboks, though.
Bobo has had the hardest time of all six, struck down by two cruciate ligament injuries at vital stages. After scoring three tries on his Super rugby debut for the Cats against the Bulls, he suffered his first knee injury three matches later. Then, after having been picked for the 2003 World Cup squad, he again tore his knee ligament.
After his last Test against Scotland at the end of 2004, Bobo’s path back to the Springboks has seen him struggle for game time at the Sharks before forming a potent centre pairing with Jean de Villiers, which coach De Villiers might like to keep for the first Test against Wales.
Jacobs was another who caught the eye of Viljoen, having formed a piercing midfield partnership at the Falcons with the late Ettienne Botha. He was an inside centre then, a playmaker and his renaissance has come at the Sharks as an impact substitute. His 10 Test caps have been earned mainly off the bench and that is unlikely to change in the national squad.
Conradie began this season as the most experienced Stormer, but was second fiddle to Ricky Januarie for most of the season. With Ruan Pienaar covering anywhere from nine to 15, he will have to fight for the replacement scrumhalf place.
Chavhanga’s debut saw him score six tries. Admittedly they were against Uruguay, but he is blessed with the sort of pace that kept defenders busy in the Super 14. They could not stop him scoring four tries in the tournament, though.Tweet