Mindset needs to change
SA rugby's current brute force over skill philosophy is unfair to the smaller-built players
"Pollard looks like a good prospect. He's a big boy, very tall, weighs in the mid-90kg and kicks very well."
This was SA Under-20 coach Dawie Theron's assessment of 18-year-old Paarl Gym flyhalf Handre Pollard, whom he drafted into his team last week for the IRB World Junior Championships taking place in Stellenbosch and Cape Town.
There was one glaring omission in the former Springbok prop's effusive praise though.
He was talking about a flyhalf, yet he said nothing about his hands, distribution, feet, speed off the mark and vision, qualities you want in your playmaker.
In all fairness to Theron, Pollard's size - he is 1.89m and 97kg after all - does catch the eye, and the point of this column is not to question the youngster's ability.
By all accounts Pollard, who was voted player of the tournament at a quality Kearsney College Easter Festival in April, is the real deal, having represented Western Province at every age group so far.
But my gripe is against some of our coaches, who appear to labour under the misapprehension that a player has to be big first and only then can he be panelbeaten into a rugby player.
There seems to be a belief that if you're not built like a cash-in-transit vehicle, you may as well stay at home with the women and children.
We have already made the same mistake with Frans Steyn.
Steyn was of similar size to Pollard at school and spent so much time running through opposition defences he had barely learnt to pass the ball when he started first-class rugby, despite being a flyhalf.
Given that he went on to win the World Cup two seasons later, it might seem like I'm nit-picking. But a player's positional basics become more important the higher the level he plays.
Steyn's distribution is out of sight now, but it took his stint at Racing Metro to rectify that.
If you want proof that bigger is everything in our rugby, consider the biggest omissions from last week's Springbok squad announcement - the smaller Gio Aplon and Heinrich Brussow.
The rugby reasons why they weren't selected are that Aplon probably doesn't play the way Heyneke Meyer wants the game played, and that fetchers have been somewhat marginalised in Super rugby.
But the unspoken reason is that they're simply not big enough.
Under normal circumstances those two would be the exception to the rule as a pair who punch above their weight. Now it seems like even the exception to the rule won't be tolerated.
The irony of our favouring blunt objects over rugby players is that it comes at a time when South Africa is producing players who appear to have emerged from the womb ready for test rugby.
Pat Lambie, Elton Jantjies, Johan Goosen, Coenie Oosthuizen, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Marcell Coetzee, Steven Kitshoff and Arno Botha all come bearing wonderful rugby gifts.
But we insist on a style of rugby which almost demands that they dumb down their natural talent to be able to play it.
The SA Under-20 side's opening defeat to Ireland at the Junior World Championships was a case in point.
That was the most clueless performance I've ever seen delivered by a team in which the cerebral Brendan Venter has been involved as a coach.
Every time Plan A got stuck, the boys came back with Plan A reinforced, which also came unstuck.
At this rate, we're creating another Bok team that will exit the 2015 or 2019 quarterfinals despite boasting a mountain of possession in those matches.
Then we'll go looking for another Bryce Lawrence to blame instead of the way we play and coach the game.