Boks’ back three set for ultimate test

A new-look Bok back three will face a monumental challenge in the Test series against France in June, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

In less than two weeks’ time, the Boks will kick off a new season against the unpredictable French, and attempt to bury the ghosts of the annus horribilis that was 2016.

After announcing his first Bok squad of the year last week, Coetzee discarded a number of non-performers who started out the journey with him in 2016, while reiterating that he had ‘learned’ from last year by backing in-form players first and foremost in his latest selections.

Furthermore, Coetzee limited his selection of overseas-based players to effectively just three: Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and Francois Hougaard, with Steven Kitshoff now returning to South Africa.

It meant no Bryan Habana, no JP Pietersen, and no Willie le Roux. I highlight these three players because they capably held down the spots in the back three at the last World Cup only two short years ago. Among them, the Boks have now said goodbye to a whopping 253 Test caps of experience.

While bearing this in mind, it’s also worth taking cognisance of Coetzee’s comments when he selected an extended Bok training squad in April. ‘Form is definitely important [when it comes to selection for the three-Test series against France],’ he reiterated at the time. ‘But also, who will be able to contain those big French wingers? So I cannot waste anyone’s time.’

Consequently, Coetzee’s ‘form’ selections among the back three saw him select Andries Coetzee as the only specialist fullback, while Courtnall Skosan, Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds were picked as the designated wingers. Talented players, yes, but there is also not one solitary Test cap between them.

One also has to consider that Coetzeee and Skosan play in a Lions side that promotes a ball-in-hand approach and places less focus on a kicking game plan. Similarly, Rhule has formed part of a free-styling Cheetahs team, while Leyds’ Stormers side has also attempted to begin an evolution to a more attacking brand of rugby.

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By contrast, one cannot get away from the fact that the Boks will be looking to embrace a win-at-all-costs style of play in June. It’s going to be a case of good old-fashioned Test rugby based around a strong defence (an area now controlled by Brendan Venter), and which needs to be complemented by a strong kicking game.

This is where the likes of Coetzee, Skosan, Rhule and Leyds are now set to face a massive test of their adaptability in what will be their first exposure to international rugby.

For all of their attacking strengths, according to the Opta statistics that are used by Sanzaar, Coetzee has made just 53 open-play kicks this season, while Skosan has put boot to ball only five times. Neither player has had to complete a heavy workload on defence due to the Lions’ highly effective protection of possession, with Coetzee’s tackle success sitting at 82.8%, while Skosan’s is at a lowly 68%.

When looking at Rhule’s statistics, he has produced some magic moments on attack, but he has just 14 open-play kicks to his name, while his tackle success sits at a worrying 55%. For Leyds, who offers utility value with his ability to play wing, fullback or flyhalf, he has completed just 29 open-play kicks, while his tackle success hovers at 77%.

To highlight these statistics is not to bash these exciting in-form players, but merely to point out that the Boks will need to be mindful of these aspects of their game, while looking to ensure that they are equipped with the ability to adapt effectively.

None of these players boast particularly notable size or height, and it will make their understanding of the aerial contest and defensive demands all the more important. At the end of the day, even if the French don’t put them to the test, you can be assured that the All Blacks will have the tactical nous to identify and exploit any weaknesses.

Of course, big Frans Steyn can cover fullback, but he has been selected in this Bok squad as a flyhalf/centre, while Jesse Kriel is a designated centre. Similarly, Francois Hougaard – who started four Tests on the wing last year – has been named as a scrumhalf.

Last year, the Boks were exposed not only on the field, but also in terms of their tactical pre-game preparation. With new coaches such as Brendan Venter and Franco Smith now on board, and Coetzee championing a change in culture, it remains to be seen whether, under their guidance, they are capable of bringing the best out of the players. And nowhere will this be more important than among the newcomers in the back three.

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Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix

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Craig Lewis