A pack short of physicality and a loose trio lacking balance saw the Boks fail to spark during the Rugby Championship, writes CRAIG LEWIS in SA Rugby magazine.
When France-based Willem Alberts was omitted from the Springbok squad at the start of the Test season, there was minimal outcry in South African rugby circles, while there also wasn’t much made of Schalk Burger’s departure to Saracens, nor that of Marcell Coetzee to Ulster.
Similarly, when Duane Vermeulen suffered a serious injury on the eve of the Rugby Championship, there were few who kicked up any real fuss. Yet, among this quartet of aforementioned players, the Boks lost nearly 200 caps of Test experience.
Considering South African rugby has for so long seemed to thrive on an unending conveyor belt of brawn and bulk among its loose forwards, there appeared to be a prevailing attitude that suggested ‘we can manage without them’.
Very quickly, though, it became abundantly apparent just how flawed such a view was.
The absence of Vermeulen meant Warren Whiteley stepped into the void at No 8 for the Rugby Championship. At blindside flank, with Alberts initially overlooked and Siya Kolisi adding to a lengthy injury list, Oupa Mohoje was called out of the international wilderness. And along with Francois Louw at openside flank, the Boks entered into the Rugby Championship with a back row that had never played together.
From the outset, it looked to be a loose trio that lacked the necessary balance to establish ascendancy at the collisions and breakdowns – areas of the game where the Boks have long been renowned for asserting their physical ascendancy.
Nevertheless, Allister Coetzee remained defiant in backing his new-look loose trio.
‘Warren has a great opportunity. He covers a lot of ground, links with the backs well and can contribute when the team is on the counter-attack. Warren is also effective in the wider channels, and his all-round ability to read the game and act as a linking loose forward adds a lot to the team,’ he said.
‘Flo [Louw] was outstanding in the third and final Test [against Ireland in June], and I know a lot of people thought he didn’t perform to his best in that series, but when you look at the guy who secures the ball at the breakdown and provides continuity for us, it’s him. He plays to the ball and does that really well.
‘Oupa is one of our lineout specialists in the side, and he’s played in teams that beat the All Blacks and Wallabies [in 2014]. You can't discount that experience,’ Coetzee continued. ‘He adds a lot at the lineout, he’s got good pace and carries the ball well.’
To be fair, as the season progressed, Whiteley, Mohoje and Louw could not be faulted for their effort. Yet, that effort was largely on defence.
With a light loose trio, the Boks’ ball-carrying remained an area of weakness, while the lack of gainline dominance on attack or defence compromised the team’s effectiveness at the breakdown.
Indeed, there was a clear indication that the Boks realised the need for a more physical ball-carrying loose forward when an injury to lock Lood de Jager suddenly saw Alberts recalled from French club Stade Français.
Although Coetzee had intimated at the outset of his tenure that he would opt to limit overseas-based selections, it became increasingly apparent that the Boks lacked the physicality of players such as Alberts, Vermeulen and Burger.
The same could certainly be said for Bismarck du Plessis, who for so long has served as one of the Springboks’ enforcers, while effectively acting as a fourth loose forward, with his ball-carrying and ball-stealing ability setting him apart.
Any chance of a recall for Du Plessis was scuppered when he suffered a serious injury for Montpellier while the Boks were involved in Rugby Championship action, but the fact he was not in the national frame to begin with defied belief.
Before Vermeulen’s injury, there had also been talk of a possible transition to blindside flank for the abrasive No 8, but that plan had to be shelved, while there was a continued reluctance to move Pieter-Steph du Toit to No 7 at this stage.
Ultimately, questions continued to be asked of a Bok back row – sans the likes of Vermeulen, Coetzee, Alberts and Burger – that appeared to lack the desired physicality, cohesion and experience.
Before the Springboks’ all-important Rugby Championship Test against Australia in Pretoria, the recurring question regarding the balance of the loose trio popped up again at a press conference involving Springbok assistant coach Matt Proudfoot.
‘I knew this one was coming,’ an exasperated Proudfoot responded, stopping just short of rolling his eyes, before launching into an extended defence over the unsung contributing roles that he suggested went unnoticed by the public.
‘As coaches, our big focus has been to create momentum in the pack, the South African game plan has always required a dominant pack,' he emphasised.
'That’s why we’ve looked to err on the side of continuity, while looking for players to add impact off the bench, such as Jaco Kriel, who is very quick and does damage with ball in hand. It’s also what we were looking for from someone like Willem on his return to the team.
‘I know a lot of criticism has been voiced around the balance of the loose-forward combination, but I’m really happy. There has to be an appreciation that your No 6 flanker has to do a lot more than just steal ball, the first role of an opensider is to control your first breakdown, and that’s where Francois has been really good and adds a lot of maturity.
‘Oupa has been developing nicely, he had a great start to the season defensively and his attacking breakdown work has improved. That’s one of the roles spectators don’t see, but it comes with closer analysis. Then I think Warren has also been performing very well, so yes, I’m satisfied with the balance we have.’
Despite Proudfoot’s determined defiance, one scribe tried his luck one last time: ‘Do you really believe the pack has been abrasive enough this season?’, he enquired.
With a steely look in his eye, Proudfoot’s brief response went along the lines of ‘wait and see’. Yet, the question still remains, will the wait be worth the reward?
BACK ROW COMBOS
17 Tests: Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen
14: Gary Teichmann, André Venter, Rassie Erasmus
14: Ruben Kruger, Gary Teichmann, André Venter
12: Jan Ellis, Piet Greyling, Tommy Bedford
12: Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies
9: Basie van Wyk, Stephen Fry, Hennie Muller
8: Theuns Stofberg, Rob Louw, Morné du Plessis
8: Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger
7: Hugo van Zyl, Doug Hopwood, Martin Pelser
6: Francois Pienaar, Ruben Kruger, Gary Teichmann
6: André Venter, André Vos, Corné Krige
6: Rassie Erasmus, André Vos, Corné Krige
6: Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Danie Rossouw
6: Juan Smith, Pierre Spies, Heinrich Brüssow
6: Schalk Burger, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen
– This article first appeared in the November edition of SA Rugby magazine.