Should a Coach Favour Experience Over Youth

A highly controversial subject which has plagued South African rugby for years, is whether a team should be selected based on young inform players, or veterans who have already proven what they are capable of in the international arena.

The youth vs experience debate started back in 2010 when then Springbok coach, Peter De Villiers, was unwilling to let go of some older, veteran players, to make way for new and upcoming players. With the John Smith, Bismarck DuPlesis argument at the forefront of the debate.

This was the start of a trend which would go on to haunt SA rugby until this day, getting progressively worse each year, and reaching its pinnacle under the Heyneke Meyer era.

Allister Coetzee who has recently been appointed as the new Springbok coach announced his first Springbok squad last week. We don’t know what Coetzee will bring to the table just yet, but one thing we do know is that Allister Coetzee is taking the complete opposite approach to his predecessors.

Allister Coetzee opting for youth over experience

rugby experience vs youth

The Veteran Or Rookie Selection Debate Has Plagued SA Rugby For Years

Coetzee’s first Springbok squad is a squad which is based on youth and inform players, with little to no players selected based on past performances and contributions. Is this a good move? Is it better to have a young, inexperienced team, rather than a team filled with veterans who have proven themselves, as worthy, in the past?

To answer the above question one needs to be open-minded and try to understand the intense psychological and physical pressure an international test match puts on a player.

Many careers have been destroyed simply by the sheer psychological pressure of international rugby, with rookies unable to perform, getting shell shocked and choking on the international stage. Past South African rugby coaches approach of throwing young players into the deep end, when they are not quite ready to swim yet, has also not aided in the cause of developing youngsters.

Examples of such players include Johan Goosen who was renowned for his pin-point goal kicking but couldn’t knock it over to save his life when he eventually made his international rugby debut. Elton Jantjies is another example, in his one and only test match for the Springboks, against New-Zealand (until this far) he was unable to perform, despite having a superb Super Rugby season. So bad was Jantjies performance that he got replaced at half time, the list could go on!

What does the above tell us? International rugby separates the average players from the greats, and despite being talented not all players can absorb the pace and intense pressure of international test match rugby.

Does this mean a coach should only select veteran players and not give younger, inform, players a chance? Of course not! What it does imply however is that selecting inexperienced players is a gamble, it can either pay dividends or it can horribly backfire.

Comparing Experience To Youth

One can argue that the reluctance by past Springbok coaches to select inexperienced players can possibly be contributed to the fact that they were worried that the experiment (giving younger player(s) a chance) could backfire, since the coach doesn’t know what the player has to offer and whether he would choke, rather opting to find comfort in the safety of knowing what a player is capable of.

With that being said, a veteran only selection policy can also horribly backfire, much like it did under the Heyneke Meyer era. Older players, despite being experienced, can be detrimental to a team, stalling the growth of the next generation. Also, opposition teams know what the veteran player(s) are capable of and would have examined their strengths and weaknesses to infinity, adjusting tactics accordingly.

Younger, inexperienced players, on the contrary, can often provide the “X” factor, catching opposition teams off guard, a good example of this is the selection of Handre Pollard who regularly caught New Zealand off guard with his darting runs from the 10 channel, since New Zealand knew South Africa as a team who doesn’t attack from the 10 channel, they didn’t work it in their defensive pattern, the result was Pollard scoring 3 tries in 2 matches against the All Blacks in the 2014 Rugby Championship.

In a perfect world, the best selection policy would allow for a balance between youth and experience. Experience is needed to provide a calming influence for youngsters and also because veteran players are veterans for a reason, they are the best in what they do!

On the other side, youth is needed to pave the way for the next generation of players and to inject that much needed “X” factor. One team who has managed to perfect the latter is the All Blacks, who over the years managed to strike the perfect balance between youth and experience, which, arguably, can be seen as one of the primary reasons for their dominance in the international rugby arena.

Did Allister Coetzee get it right with his first Springbok squad to face Ireland?

As mentioned, Coetzee selected a very young and inexperienced side. It is a bold move by Coetzee, seeing that the Boks will play Ireland with nothing, except IRB rankings and pride at stake, it can be said that it was a good move by Coetzee, and he generally got the nod of approval by experienced pundits such as Nick Mallet. The only flip side to the approach is that – should Allister Coetzee lose the test series against the Irish, he will enter the Rugby Championship under immense pressure and the critics knives will be out.

There are 11 veteran players in Coetzee’s group of 31, they are:

  • Eben Etzebeth
  • Frans Malherbe
  • Adriaan Strauss (captain)
  • Lood de Jager
  • Francois Louw
  • Tendai Mtawarira
  • Duane Vermeulen
  • Patrick Lambie
  • JP Pietersen
  • Wille le Roux

The above leads to a veteran/inexperience ratio of 33%, a pretty good balance. However, there are two factors which should concern Springbok supports. When examining the veteran to inexperience ratio 8 of the 10 veteran players selected are amongst the forwards thus, there are only 2 veterans selected for the backs! Needless to say, this will lead to a very young and inexperienced Springbok backline.

Secondly,  it is hard to see how some of the youngsters selected by Coetzee can outplay their New Zealand and Australian counterparts, with an exception here and there, although admittedly it might be a bit premature to make such a statement, which leads us to our next point.

South African Rugby In For Some Tough Times

Because of the reluctance by past Springbok coaches to select younger players , over the past several years, South African rugby is now in a dire situation where veteran players have aged to such an extent that their best is past them, with the majority either having retired or went to cash in overseas.

This forces Allister Coetzee into full rebuilding mode, having to develop players for international rugby, who arguably should have made their debut a couple of years back. Very few players are able to make a smooth transition from provincial to international rugby. Thus, if you are a Springbok rugby supporter don’t expect to see instant results, we estimate with good coaching and a proper development plan, it will be at least 2-years before the Springboks will start to peak. On the bright side, working and building up a young side can possibly lead to the Springboks starting to peak at the right time for Japan 2019.

So What Is Better A Young Inexperienced Side Or An Older Experienced Side?

Our original question was; whether a coach should favour experience over form and youth, the answer to the latter is neither. We are of strong believe that having a squad which is too young and inexperience is not good for a team. Rookies are bound to make mistakes as they transcend to the international stage, there will be losses, despite their passion and desire to proof themselves. On the contrary, we have all seen what an old but experienced test team brings to the table…and it was not good.

Again we refer to New Zealand who has managed to strike the perfect vein between youth and experience, the All Blacks superb blend of the two is no coincidence. It is the result of proper planning and development something which South African rugby sorely lacks.

Conclusion

Will things be different under Coetzee? Yes, he will be playing much more youth but we can’t help to feel worried about the absence of experienced players in the squad, especially the backline.

What do you think about Allister Coetzee and his Springbok squad? Do you believe rookies should be favoured over older, veteran players? Drop us a comment below to let us know your thoughts!

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