The injury absence of Warren Whiteley is set to present both the Lions and Springboks’ coaches with plenty to ponder over their best loose-forward combination, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
An apparent injury ‘niggle’ that Whiteley seemed to be managing during the June series has turned out to be far worse than initially thought, with the latest scans revealing that he had suffered a torn ligament in his pelvis.
Although the injury doesn’t require surgery, the medical report released by the Lions on Tuesday confirmed it would still rule the Bok and Lions captain out of action for six to eight weeks, which has effectively ended his Super Rugby season.
It’s a particularly massive blow for the Lions, as Whiteley’s presence was always likely to be a key factor in the Johannesburg-based side's endeavours to progress one step further than last year’s runners-up finish.
It now remains to be seen whether Johan Ackermann might deploy Whiteley in a form of ‘mentoring’ off-field role, as was the case when he was ruled out of last year’s semi-final.
Either way, there shouldn’t be a leadership issue for the Lions, with Jaco Kriel sure to seamlessly assume the captaincy reins.
However, the Lions not only need to adjust in the absence of their regular captain, but adapt their approach now that the ranging, linking No 8 is set to be sidelined for the remainder of the competition.
As was the case in the 2016 semi-final, the more physical form of Ruan Ackermann is set to shift to No 8, but this will leave a void at blindside flank (which last year was filled by now-retired Warwick Tecklenburg).
Kwagga Smith has been in outstanding form for the Golden Lions in the Provincial Rugby Challenge, and he could come straight in at No 7, but the Blitzboks star may well be better suited to a role at No 6, with Kriel shifting to blindside flank.
The Lions coaches also have the option of deploying Robert Kruger or Cyle Brink at No 7, but the configuration of Ackermann-Kriel-Smith has an exciting look to it.
The Bok coaches are also sure to use the next few weeks to determine what their best options might be in the back row at the start of the Rugby Championship.
If Whiteley’s rehabilitation goes well, he could find himself back just in time for the opener against Argentina on 19 August, but the fact remains that the Boks will need to be prepared for the possibility of his absence in the first Test or two.
An obvious replacement could be to bring the experienced Duane Vermeulen in at No 8, but there is still no clarity exactly when he will make a return to action after being ruled out of the June series with a serious shoulder injury.
This past Saturday, Jean-Luc du Preez filled in at No 8, but this isn’t the preferred position for the Sharks youngster.
Nevertheless, Du Preez may well need to continue in this makeshift role, although the likes of South Africa A performers Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Andisa Ntsila will want to send out a reminder of their capabilities during the business end of Super Rugby.
Oupa Mohoje will also be back in the mix after missing the final Test against France due to concussion, and there’s every chance he will reclaim the No 7 jersey.
It means that a new-look Bok back row for the first Rugby Championship Test could include Du Preez, Mohoje and Kolisi, with Kriel providing back-up off the bench, while Pieter-Steph du Toit offers extra utility value.
Eben Etzebeth will continue as captain, but the Boks will be desperately hoping for Whiteley’s speedy recovery. Yet for the Lions, they have no option but to find a way to win Super Rugby without their inspirational skipper.
Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images