Changes to the backline are non-negotiable but the Springboks have no clear long-term solutions at scrumhalf and are thin in several other positions, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Nick Mallett was more sad than mad in the wake of South Africa’s record defeat to the All Blacks in Albany last Saturday. In his post-match analysis on SuperSport, the former Bok coach lamented the lack of skills in the current squad. Mallett went as far as to say that the Boks are a team ‘that is trying without stars’.
Duane Vermeulen, Frans Malherbe and Coenie Oosthuizen are among those who have been ruled out for the rest of the Rugby Championship due to injuries. There’s is still some uncertainty over the availability of Warren Whiteley and Ross Cronjé. Jaco Kriel won’t be back until 2018.
Allister Coetzee has to make changes in the wake of the 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks. There are more than enough options in South Africa and abroad to ensure that a competitive midfield and back three fronts the Wallabies and All Blacks in the coming weeks. The Bok coach may struggle, however, to find solutions to his scrumhalf and forward problems.
Coetzee gambled when he selected fullback Andries Coetzee as well as wingers Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule to start in the three Tests against France. These relatively small backs were exposed, as individuals and as a combination, in the air and on defence in those matches. It came as no surprise when all three were shown to be out of their depth in the clash against the All Blacks this past Saturday.
It cannot be said that Coetzee, Skosan and Rhule did not enjoy an extended opportunity at the highest level. After seven consecutive Tests, however, it’s clear that they are not contributing in the key departments of the game.
Ruan Combrinck made an immediate impact when he was introduced to Test rugby in 2016. The winger has the size, the aerial and defensive skills, and certainly the attitude to be a key player for the Boks now and in future. He’s also no slouch on attack.
One would expect Combrinck to start on the right wing for the Boks sooner rather than later. He was overlooked for the Tests against France and for the first four games of the Rugby Championship. His selection for the home Tests could have short- and long-term benefits for a Bok side building towards the 2019 World Cup.
Curwin Bosch is another important player that must be managed carefully by South African rugby. At the age of 20, Bosch has the attacking and kicking skills to be a success at the highest level. What needs to addressed, however, is Bosch’s defence. One would expect the youngster to bulk up over the next year or so, too.
That said, does Andries Coetzee deserve to play ahead of Bosch at No 15? When one considers what Bosch offers on attack and especially with the tactical boot, one is inclined to believe that the latter will add more value.
Bosch and Combrinck would benefit from the inclusion of an experienced player in that back three, though. JP Pietersen has won major tournaments and amassed 70 Test caps. He’s proved over the course of his career that he has the physicality, skill and speed to match the best players in the world.
The inclusion of Frans Steyn is a must. Unbelievably, Steyn was used as a substitute in the series against France as Coetzee preferred the centre-pairing of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel. That partnership was exposed in the recent clashes against the Wallabies and All Blacks, with Kriel in particular struggling to look after his channel.
Steyn played inside centre and Serfontein No 13 during the latter stages of the three Tests against France. The World Cup-winner brings experience as well as a rare skill set to the position. He offers a powerful line- and goal-kicking option.
Serfontein has proved a strong organiser on defence. Another No 13 option is Lukhanyo Am, one of South Africa’s top performers in the 2017 Super Rugby tournament.
These changes should bolster the Bok backline in the departments of aerial skills, defence, gainline efficiency, and tactical kicking. Whether South African rugby has as many options in other positions such as scrumhalf is another story.
Francois Hougaard failed to impress when he started at No 9 in the third Test against France. His passing and reading of the game were poor in the subsequent starts against Argentina and New Zealand.
Cronjé was ruled out of the game against the All Blacks. It remains to be seen if he will recover in time to front the Wallabies.
It would be a stretch to suggest that Cronjé is in the mould of Fourie du Preez or that he has the potential to become one of the best No 9s in the world. The same applies to the Boks’ third-choice scrumhalf, Rudy Paige. Gone are the days when the Boks were spoiled for choice in this position.
Bath flanker Francois Louw is expected to return now that Jaco Kriel has been ruled out due to injury. Coetzee may opt to start Siya Kolisi and Louw on the flanks. The big question, however, is who will be tasked with the No 8 role.
Vermeulen will only return to action in October. The Boks may be reluctant to rush Whiteley back until he has fully recovered from a serious groin injury.
Like Coetzee, Skosan and Rhule, Uzair Cassiem was shown to be out of his depth in the recent games against Australia and New Zealand. Jean-Luc du Preez did a job at No 8 in the third Test against France in June but is more suited to blindside flank. Dan du Preez toured Australasia recently, but did not receive an opportunity. That may change in the coming weeks.
Some big calls will need to be made up front. The ongoing experiment with Trevor Nyakane as a tighthead prop has to end. Given that Malherbe and Oosthuizen may be sidelined for some time, it’s best that the Boks bring Wilco Louw into the match-day mix sooner rather than later.
The Boks could also use a hooker of Bismarck du Plessis’ experience and class. Du Plessis impressed in Montpellier’s big win against Toulon this past weekend. If he is available, he must be picked.