The Nosebleed Section #3
EPL 3-0 Bafana
A week is a long time in sport. That old adage was never truer than over the past few days. In the time that I have spent enjoying the school holidays with the kids, there have been some very significant developments in South African sport.
The most surprising move has been Steven Pienaar's retirement from international football. It's shocking because he's been a key member of the national side and the captain, no less. Why? Well Pienaar's focus has clearly shifted to Everton's success and so far things are looking rosy at Goodison Park.
The Toffees are flying high early in the season with four wins from six matches and Pienaar has been instrumental in that. He's played all but four minutes of the first 540 minutes of the season and has contributed with 2 assists and a goal. That's not to mention that he gets a free role as a playmaker at one of England's biggest clubs and dictates the pace of play to a large degree.
So he's a valuable player for Everton and they need him. They will need him even more when the second half of the season gets underway next year at the same time as the Africa Cup of Nations. It's being hosted in South Africa and that makes Pienaar's decision even more perplexing. Why would he not want to lead Bafana Bafana on home soil? I can only think that he believes this could be his career-defining season at Everton in the top league in football.
Perhaps it will be the season Pienaar leads Everton's charge to an unlikely spot in the Champions League, but I doubt that. They will finish well, but won't qualify for Europe. Not that he has any better chance of success at the Nations' Cup.
Bafana Bafana have the ability to do well there and even win it the way Gordon Igesund is going, but the jury's still out on how much the team can improve in a short space of time and honestly without Pienaar, South Africa's chances have taken a huge blow. Yes, we have other players that can fill the role, but we do not have a leader with similar experience. We do not have a playmaker that has proven his ability in the toughest league in the world and we will miss him.
The position Pienaar finds himself in is not new. Think Quinton Fortune, Benni McCarthy and the countless other African players who have had to choose between club and country. The writing was on the wall when Everton reported the Bafana skipper had mysteriously picked up an injury that would keep him out of the match against Brazil. The signs were there that club would win this latest battle for talent.
I don't blame Everton or Pienaar. I think African football should get in line with Europe. International friendlies are synchronised, so why does the Nations' Cup take place at the most crucial time for European league football? For what reason can Africa's biggest football tournament not be played during the European and South African off season? I can't imagine it has something to do with the schedules of some African leagues. In Nigeria the league starts in January and ends in September for example. In Kenya league matches are from February to November. This means, like in South Africa and Europe, the Nations Cup cuts into the regular league season in those countries as well. Why not synchronise leagues worldwide and have Africa's showpiece in July? There must be some rationale behind it, but I don't get it.
The EP Kings have taken lots of stick this week after more announcements that the new Super Rugby franchise is to sign players from the Lions, Argentina and even New Zealand. Critics and Lions supporters are quick to point out that these moves do nothing to develop rugby talent from the Eastern Cape. I disagree. I think the Kings are right to do everything in their power to construct and build a winning team. That's the point of competing and something the Lions have not been able to do in many seasons.
I would love to have a sixth franchise instead of a promotion relegation system, but for how long would the creation of an Eastern Cape franchise be put on hold? That decision has been pushed through and I'm ecstatic. It is regrettable that it's done at the expense of an existing franchise and I have no doubt that is counter-productive in many respects, but the objective of establishing a franchise in PE is more important than keeping the Lions in a competition where they only fill the numbers.
The Eastern Cape region needs to be developed in all facets, including sport, and rugby is one sport it already excels in if one looks at the number of Super Rugby professionals and Springboks it has developed. Young talent in the Eastern Cape needs a professional winning franchise to aspire to. The important part of the equation is that the team needs to get in and then win. Participating will only serve to make a mockery of the competition and so I argue it's ridiculous to think the Kings would not recruit and head-hunt the best talent.
The Kings need players with Super Rugby experience, internationals, promising youngsters, hard working professionals and leaders like any other franchise does. That's why I believe they're going out to get them.
These players generally don't exist within the Eastern Cape at the moment, because other franchises have been grabbing that talent for years.
To argue that the Kings were awarded franchise status just to field black talent from the region is naïve and wrong. Where is this wealth of Super Rugby ready talent supposed to come from, if there was nothing to aspire to before? The raw talent is there, but the odds have been stacked against an EP youngster looking to make a career out of rugby when compared to those in Gauteng or the Western Cape for example. More professionals and indeed Springboks will emerge from the Eastern Cape because of the existence of the Kings, but only if the franchise is successful first and does well. For that to happen there is no doubt that the Kings need to invest in structures and players.
Rugby's age of professionalism is 17 years in the making - it's about time it expands and also accepts that regionalism is fading fast whether we like it or not. It means professional rugby players are looking for the best opportunities and franchises are looking for the best talent available regardless of where they're from.
Time for T20 Specialists?
Finally a word on the Proteas failure to win the World T20, that's what it's about after all - winning the big prize. My feeling is the side was not settled enough. Other teams had a clear idea of when to use certain players in certain situations. I don't think South Africa had a clear idea of who their best combinations were!
To lose at the World T20 is not the worst thing, as it's probably the toughest tournament to plan for. The game moves and changes so quickly that teams can rarely look back and say: "We could've done this better and that's what went wrong." The best way to plan, in my opinion, would be to develop specialists.
In general I think we should move the direction Sevens Rugby has - a specialist team comprising of young players and veterans with the aptitude and skill to play that brand of cricket. I'm not saying world-class players like Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Morne Morkel and Hashim Amla are not brilliant at T20, because they are. What I am arguing is that with the right development we can build a T20 team completely comfortable and focused on the shortest form of the game.
In the process we'll even develop T20 superstars! Think Cecil Afrika for the Blitzboks or DJ Forbes for the Sevens All Blacks. Would players from the 15-man code beat them to their positions in Sevens? No. We need to let ODI and Test players concentrate on the longer forms of the game. Like I said in this column two weeks ago, Kallis needed to play ODI's against England, not rest up for the World T20.
Like Sevens, T20 is still growing at a rapid pace and I think we'll open up massive opportunities if skilled players can specialise in it. Yes, they could graduate to First Class, ODI and Test cricket of course, but we need T20 oriented players coming through.
Test and ODI stars will remain as popular as ever, but T20 stars would have the IPL, CLT20, World T20 and perhaps even a global series like Sevens Rugby to compete in. This will mean more time for more Tests and ODI's, while T20 fans get more regular matches as well. The legendary Sachin Tendulkar has played only one international T20 and yet we've seen enough of him over the past few years. I for one don't need to see the great Kallis play T20's. Do you?
Wesley Petersen is the EWN Sport Editor.