The Springboks will head into a Test against the best kick-chase side in the world with an unestablished and ill-equipped back three, writes JON CARDINELLI.
No team executes the box kick or the high bomb better than the All Blacks. No team has a better chase line.
In an interview with SA Rugby magazine earlier this year, Rassie Erasmus said that the New Zealanders’ aerial skills – more specifically how much time they devote to honing these skills in training, and indeed how they execute in terms of kicking and contesting on game day – are what set them apart.
‘They live in the air,’ the Bok coach observed, before going on to explain why South African rugby has to do more – at Super Rugby and Test levels – to close the gap.
Fast forward to the present. Based on what we saw in Super Rugby and even in recent Rugby Championship games, the South African players have a long way to go before they can be spoken about in the same breath as the Kiwis in this department.
The Boks have lost several back-three players to injuries over the past few months. S’bu Nkosi and Warrick Gelant were ruled out on the eve of the Rugby Championship. Makazole Mapimpi, who started against the Wallabies in Brisbane, has been forced to return to South Africa due to a knee problem.
No replacement will fly out to Wellington to join the Boks ahead of the clash against the All Blacks. At the moment, it appears as if the same combination that finished the game in Brisbane – Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Aphiwe Dyantyi – will front the All Blacks at the Cake Tin.
The All Blacks – kickers Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, as well as aerial-contest experts like Ben Smith in particular – must be licking their lips.
Le Roux – the senior man in the backline – has made some costly errors under the high ball in recent weeks, while his kicking from hand and all-round decision-making has left a lot to be desired. At this stage, however, Erasmus doesn’t have a better option at 15, and will hope that Le Roux rises to the challenge.
Dyantyi has shown some aptitude for this aspect of Test rugby, but is yet to face the All Blacks. The hosts may look to target the youngster, who made his Super Rugby debut earlier this season and doesn’t have a lot of experience on foreign soil.
That said, it wouldn’t surprise to see Barrett sending a few kick-passes or high-hanging kicks in the direction of Kolbe’s wing. At 1.71m, Kolbe is significantly shorter than probable opponents such as Rieko Ioane (1.89m), Waisake Naholo (1.86m) and Ben Smith (1.86m). Kolbe, who represented the Stormers before moving to Toulouse, has been exposed in this manner by New Zealand sides in the past.
Erasmus said at the start of the tournament that he wanted to have a look at Damian Willemse as a fullback option. One cannot see the coach starting the 20-year-old at fullback against the All Blacks in New Zealand, though.
This begs the question of why so few back-three specialists were included in the Bok touring party. Players like Ruan Combrinck and JP Pietersen would have added a lot of value across games of this nature.
Kolbe was a surprise selection given the nature of a game in New Zealand. Now Erasmus may have no option but to thrust the diminutive player into the starting mix.
Erasmus has spoken about Jesse Kriel and Lukhanyo Am as wing options for the coming game. It would be a gamble to back either player, however, given the lack of experience in the position.
Kriel has started one game for the Boks in this position (against Argentina in 2015). He has spent the bulk of his Test and Super Rugby career at outside centre, and is not particularly celebrated for his kicking or aerial skills.
Am impressed on the wing in his breakout season of Super Rugby – for the Kings – and made his Test debut, from the bench, at wing against Wales last year. He has specialised at No 13 for the Sharks and Boks of late, though. While he may offer more than Kriel at wing, his lack of experience in this position at Test level could also be exposed.
Erasmus and his lieutenants visited the respective Super Rugby franchises earlier this season. The likes of Jacques Nienaber – who is responsible for the defence and aerial contesting in the Bok team – stressed the need to improve in these key departments.
We will see how much progress has been made by the players when they front the best side in the world on Saturday.
Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images