After the first eight rounds of Super Rugby, initial indications suggest the Springboks will have to field a young and new-look backline during the June series against France, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The 2017 season has flown by in such a flash it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are just six more rounds of Super Rugby action before the Springboks head into a three-Test series against France.
What will have given Allister Coetzee some encouragement is that teams such as the Lions, Stormers and Sharks have begun to embrace a more all-encompassing brand of rugby this season.
Yet the fact remains that there are probably still more question marks than answers over the likely composition of the Bok backline for the June series. Such uncertainty was also a clear factor that plagued the Springboks during a horror 2016 season, when various combinations were trialled with limited success.
This sort of uncertainty was rather aptly illustrated during the final two Tests of the year. In the penultimate match of 2016, Coetzee stuck with a relatively conservative backline combination against Italy, which looked like this: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Rudy Paige.
After that horror defeat in Florence, Coetzee desperately overhauled the side for the final Test against Wales, with this backline taking to the field: 15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk. In the end, an eighth defeat of the year was the result.
A new season might herald new optimism for the Boks, but what is rather revealing is that when looking at both those completely different backlines, very few of these players look likely to be automatic selections in June.
To quickly run through it, Le Roux battled for form last year and is now based overseas full-time. Combrinck has yet to return from a long-term injury. Venter only recently made his comeback from injury and is still working his way back to form. De Allende has been out with a serious injury. Habana’s international career is winding down. Lambie has been sidelined with serious injury. Paige has been considerably out of form.
Meanwhile, in the backline that finished the 2016 season, Goosen is no longer a consideration after he went rogue in France. Janse van Rensburg is believed to have suffered a serious knee injury that is likely to rule him out of the June series. Ulengo has battled for form this season. Jantjies failed to make the most of his opportunities at flyhalf last year, and is not likely to fit into the game plan of Coetzee, while De Klerk has fallen out of favour.
At face value, it would certainly seem as if there is a clean slate and everything still to play for over the next six rounds of Super Rugby.
The question now remains whether Coetzee will be brave enough to pick players on form, not reputation, and be willing to back youngsters to lead the Boks into what is set to be a high-pressured, must-win series against France.
It’s doubtful, but whatever the case may be, it does appear almost certain that the backline will have a very new look to it in June. In fact, based on what we’ve seen over the first eight rounds of Super Rugby, an in-form backline could look something like this:
15. SP Marais (alternative: Jesse Kriel)
14. Cheslin Kolbe (alternative: Kobus van Wyk)
13. EW Viljoen (alternative: Lionel Mapoe)
12. André Esterhuizen (alternative: Jan Serfontein)
11. Raymond Rhule (alternative: Courtnall Skosan)
10. Elton Jantjies (alternative: Handré Pollard)
9. Cobus Reinach (alternative: Jano Vermaak)
It could be a young and exciting backline, while it should be noted that the available options could be strengthened once the likes of Combrinck, De Allende, Janse van Rensburg and Lambie return from injury. At flyhalf, Pollard also still has enough time to work his way back to his best form, while Curwin Bosch could be a real Bok bolter.
Ultimately, while the Boks may be set to field a new-look backline in June, what is clear is the fact that there are no shortage of talented, locally-based options.
Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix