The makeup of the Springbok pack, and the back row in particular, should be the biggest talking point ahead of the Tests in Australia and New Zealand, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks suffered their heaviest defeat to Argentina when they went down 32-19 in Mendoza. On Monday, World Rugby confirmed that South Africa have dropped down to seventh in the rankings.
The performance, result and subsequent confirmation that the Boks are ranked lower than Scotland on the global ladder should be viewed as a wake-up call. The team will not challenge for the Rugby Championship title this season. They will travel to next year’s World Cup as an outside bet to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Rassie Erasmus has blamed himself as well as the players for a poor performance in Mendoza. While accepting responsibility is all well and good, one wonders how the Bok coach is going to turn things around before the Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane next Saturday. The Boks are wanting for options in several key positions at present.
There’s been talk of Erasmus bringing Duane Vermeulen back into the side for the Test against the All Blacks in Wellington on 15 September. Vermeulen, one of South Africa’s best players in the recent series victory over England, would help the side to tick a few boxes.
The Boks have certainly missed Vermeulen’s leadership, breakdown expertise and ability to marshall the defence in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship. Twice the Boks have played Argentina, and twice they have been found wanting at the breakdown and on several defensive fronts.
Three weeks ago, a few eyebrows were raised after Erasmus announced that he intended to play Marco van Staden, Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw in the same back-row combination. There was some excitement at the prospect of seeing two out-and-out fetchers operating in tandem, yet also some concern over the absence of an abrasive ball-carrier and defender in the Juan Smith-mould.
The combination that was selected for the Test against Argentina in Durban also lacked balance, with neither Louw, Siya Kolisi or Warren Whiteley fitting that description. Erasmus felt this combination would help the Boks to lift the tempo, yet there were times in Durban where the forwards’ inability to win the races to the rucks and the physical battle at the gainline compromised the team on attack.
In Mendoza, Argentina dominated the breakdowns and collisions to set the platform for a resounding victory. This time, there could be no argument made for this back-row combination offering more in the speed department. The physical shortcomings of this combination were also laid bare.
Will Erasmus heed the lessons of the Mendoza defeat? The Bok coach says the team will adopt a ‘win at all costs’ mentality from here on in.
Defence is the side’s biggest issue at present – with 32 missed tackles and an alarmingly bad 74% tackle success rate in the recent fixture in Mendoza. These problems, however, can be linked to the Boks’ struggles at the tackle point.
Does Erasmus back his most experienced forward combination in Australia and New Zealand? Or does he pick the players who are best suited for the breakdown task? If Vermeulen is available, he will certainly boost the Boks in the aforementioned areas.
If Vermeulen is not available, though, the Boks could be in trouble. The side doesn’t have a like-for-like replacement in the current squad.
Erasmus has mentioned Louw as an alternative to Whiteley at No 8. The veteran did not look particularly sharp in Mendoza but may be preferred to Whiteley in Brisbane and Wellington due to his experience and breakdown expertise.
The Boks produced a couple of promising forward performances in the first two Tests against England. In those fixtures, the loose trio of Kolisi (at openside instead of blindside), Pieter-Steph du Toit and Vermeulen offered the side more in terms of attacking and defensive options.
The Boks competed fiercely at the breakdowns in those games, and Du Toit in particular was a force at the gainline. The Boks will need players such as Louw to combat David Pocock and Michael Hooper at the breakdowns in Brisbane, but they will also need men like Du Toit who can drive them forward and place the Wallabies tacklers and would-be fetchers on the back foot.
Another option, as Erasmus suggested when the team was in camp in Stellenbosch three weeks ago, is to back Van Staden, Kolisi and Louw as a starting combination. That may be a gamble considering Van Staden’s inexperience. A Bok pack without a genuine blindside may struggle to make a physical statement – and one is certainly needed after the limp showing in Mendoza.
Malcolm Marx will aid the Boks’ breakdown effort in Brisbane. The tight five will have a point to prove against the Wallabies, and it wouldn’t surprise to see Erasmus making at least one change.
Franco Mostert wasn’t at his industrious best in Mendoza, while Eben Etzebeth failed to replicate his brutally effective performance in Durban. One would expect both to start, if Du Toit is indeed utilised in the back row. A change up front could be on the cards, with Frans Malherbe making way for Wilco Louw or Thomas du Toit after some less-than-stellar performances around the park.
Injuries could well hamper the Boks’ back-row cause in the coming weeks. The squad is already without strong blindside options such as Jean-Luc du Preez and Cyle Brink, who are both recovering from ailments. If Du Toit succumbs to an injury in the next week or so, the side could well head into the game against the All Blacks with the same back-row combination that struggled against Argentina.
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