Aphelele Fassi scored his first Test try with his first touch after just 36 seconds. But the wait for more game time is proving elusive to a player who screams X-factor. Not playing Fassi this weekend is another wasted chance, writes Mark Keohane.
Pick X-factor players.
Don’t make them wait in a queue because of a supposed pecking order.
I wasn’t impressed with Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber’s reasoning for omitting Fassi from the match-day squad of 23 to play Wales.
Nienaber has rested veteran fullback Willie le Roux, picked Damian Willemse at fullback and in the absence of the unavailable Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi, picked specialist centre Jesse Kriel on the right wing.
Kriel’s only other Test appearance on the wing was a horror night in Durban in 2015, when the Boks lost to Argentina and Kriel’s lack of experience playing wing was tactically exposed.
Nienaber spoke of the need for players to be patient to get their chance, citing that Willemse had been in the Bok set-up for three years but only had three starts.
‘This is an ideal situation to give Damian an opportunity. We haven’t given him an extended opportunity where he can actually play and settle himself into the fullback position. We felt that this was a great opportunity. We said to Willie (le Roux) that he must help us develop Damian and Aphelele. It is a side project and Willie is providing as much information as he can to them,’ said Nienaber.
‘Saying that, all three are different players with different skill sets. I asked Damian how many Tests he has played in and it was 13 going on 14 now. I asked him how many times he had started and he only has had three starts until now, which shows you really have to work hard to get a start here.
‘I had this conversation in front of Aphelele, that’s the thing, Damian has waited since 2018, he’s been in our mix, working hard and training well. He has been in the mix for three years.’
Nienaber said there was no guarantee that Fassi, whose first Test was against Georgia and his last Test was against Argentina in the home leg of the Rugby Championship, would see any game time in the next three weekends.
He kept referring to how difficult it was for any player to break into the 23.
Nienaber is the coach and his decisions will determine the result and ultimately his tenure, but no player can develop on the training field and the only way to get Test match experience is to actually play Test matches.
Look at New Zealand’s Will Jordan. He has played 11 Tests and scored 16 tries. He has experienced the highs and lows in his first full international season and the All Blacks coaches have been willing to expose him to the demands of Test rugby, while rotating with more experienced back three options.
They have not kept him in a queue based on others having arrived in the squad a few years back.
I’d loved to have seen a more adventurous and liberal approach from Nienaber when it comes to Fassi, and I am not alone.
Legendary Springboks centurion Victor Matfield is another who believed Fassi and the Springboks would be winners if the dynamic attacking game of Fassi was unleashed up north in November.
For now, Fassi’s only lesson will be one of patience when it should had been one of adventure.
(Fassi’s try at 36 seconds)