Bok coach Rassie Erasmus will have had a healthy headache when it comes to selecting his best back row options for the World Cup, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Last year, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen established themselves as the first-choice back-row combination for the Boks in unequivocal fashion.
However, an injury to Kolisi towards the end of the 2019 Vodacom Super Rugby ultimately provided an opportunity for the Boks to explore a few other options. Indeed, other loose forwards who featured last year, such as Warren Whiteley, Dan du Preez and Sikhumbuzo Notshe, have also had injuries in 2019 and since fallen by the wayside.
It’s led Erasmus to cast his net a little wider. Hence the arrival of Marcell Coetzee and Rynhardt Elstadt, while Francois Louw started at No 8 against the Wallabies in the opening Test of the year. Former Blitzboks star Kwagga Smith also won favour and earned a rare start against the All Blacks in Wellington.
Erasmus will have an extremely challenging task at hand when it comes to selecting his loose-forward contingent to take to the World Cup in Japan.
INCUMBENT AT NO 8: DUANE VERMEULEN
There was a time when Vermeulen was overlooked by the Springboks. It seems scarcely believable when one considers the impact he has made since being installed as integral member of Erasmus’ Bok brigade. Not only is the veteran a shoo-in at No 8, should he remain fit, but he has established himself as one of the most prominent leaders in the team. Under Erasmus, the Boks have not always placed a premium on fielding an out-and-out openside flanker. Vermeulen is key to the back-row balance in this context as he is an outstanding exponent at the breakdown. After a standout season for the Bulls in Super Rugby, in which Vermeulen secured a number of crucial turnovers, he has now turned his attention to one final World Cup charge.
BLINDSIDE BRUISER: PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT
The questions over Du Toit’s best position appear to have been answered over the last year. In 2018, the powerful forward started four Tests at lock, and eight at flank. It’s in the No 7 jersey that Du Toit has said he increasingly feels most comfortable, and it’s where his impact has been nothing short of immense. Du Toit has an insatiable work rate that often defies his size, while he has consistently the Boks’ leading tackler. The Stormers stalwart was understandably named the SA Rugby Player of the Year for 2018, and is assured of a starting berth at the World Cup.
THE LEADER: SIYA KOLISI
Just as Kolisi looked to be rediscovering his best form this year, he suffered an unfortunate knee injury towards the end of Super Rugby. It ruled him out of action at the start of the Test season, and left him desperately in need of some game-time before the start of the World Cup. Thankfully, Kolisi was able to make his comeback in the Currie Cup recently, before making his international return against Argentina last weekend. He will be the man to lead the Boks to Japan, and to hold down one of the starting berths on the flank. The Bok skipper is seen by many as a sort of hybrid flanker who boasts attributes befitting both an openside and blindside. The number on his back wouldn’t seem to be matter to Kolisi, although it’s likely that when fit, he will predominantly wear the No 6 jersey.
IMPACT OPTION: KWAGGA SMITH
Last year, Smith made a concerted effort to focus fully on fifteens rugby in the hopes of realising his Springbok dream. He achieved that when he made his Test debut against Wales in June 2018, but he never featured for the Boks again that season. It appeared that he had his work cut out to prove his capabilities in the longer form of the game, but he emerged as one of the Lions’ most impactful players during the 2019 Super Rugby season, and simply became too good to ignore. It was still quite a surprise to see Smith included among the ‘first-choice’ contingent that travelled to New Zealand for the match against the All Blacks on 27 July, but that just served as an indication of the value Erasmus places on him.
WILY VETERAN: FRANCOIS LOUW
The 34-year-old may not be the man who steals the headlines or wins universal praise from supporters, but Louw is your typical loose-forward workhorse who does the dirty work. With vast experience, and an abundance of street smarts attained from years playing overseas, Louw is one of those players who is held in the highest regard by his coaches and teammates. Besides his omnipresence at the contact areas, Louw is a tireless defender and has the ability to switch from No 6 to 8 in times of need. He has always been one of the players who is never far from Erasmus’ team sheet, which puts him in good stead ahead of the World Cup.
UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL: RYNHARDT ELSTADT
Over a decade ago, Erasmus was involved in the Stormers’ management, and offered a ringing endorsement of Elstadt: ‘There’s something about this guy. He could be the next Bakkies Botha.’ Such an emphatic prediction hasn’t quite come to pass, but after a standout season in France, Erasmus found cause to offer Elstadt an unexpected opportunity on the Test stage. And when chatting to the media on the eve of his Bok debut against the Wallabies in July, the former Stormers strongman opined he had evolved as a player in Europe, where he added more finesse to his game that had previously revolved more around brute force. Like some of his other loose-forward teammates, Elstadt can play at either openside or blindside, while he is also an option at lock. It’s undoubtedly what’s added to his all-round appeal.
OTHER OPTIONS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
South African rugby seems to have always been blessed with a seemingly unstoppable conveyer belt of loose-forward talent. With this in mind, consider that the likes of Cyle Brink, Marco van Staden and Jean-Luc du Preez were largely deemed surplus to requirements at the start of the Test season. Dan du Preez is another who was once regarded as the next big thing in South African rugby, but an injury in Super Rugby stalled his progress this year. For Notshe, an injury-plagued 2019 has similarly done him no favours. However, if the Boks do happen to suffer a couple of injuries, the good news is that they have more than enough back-row talent available to call upon.
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images