Boks deny back-row imbalance

The Springboks look set to continue backing a loose trio of Warren Whiteley, Oupa Mohoje and Francois Louw despite a limited impact from the new-look combination, writes CRAIG LEWIS in Johannesburg.

At the start of the season, Allister Coetzee had no hesitation in entrusting Toulon-based Duane Vermeulen with the No 8 jersey. Although Warren Whiteley had been in sensational form for the Lions in Super Rugby, the Boks recognised that Vermeulen had ‘been the heart and soul’ of the back row for the better part of four years.

As a physical ball carrier, excellent breakdown exponent and top defensive organiser, he was the one man the Boks could not afford to lose ahead of the Rugby Championship, but as fate would have it, a knee injury ruled him out for the season just a week before the team’s tournament-opener.

The Springboks’ back-row options were further compromised when Siya Kolisi, who had shown encouraging signs during the June series, suffered a serious ankle injury in the Stormers’ Super Rugby quarter-final.

Despite this double blow, the Bok coaches sought to put on a brave face. Although they acknowledged that Whiteley was a very different sort of No 8 to Vermeulen, they insisted he would add different value as a linking loose forward.

And although Mohoje had endured an injury-disrupted season, and last started for the Boks in 2014, his mobility and strength as a lineout specialist was put forward as reasons to warrant his elevation to the No 7 spot.

At openside flank, the Boks coaches also insisted that Louw provided much-needed experience and continued to add immense unseen value as the team’s primary breakdown controller.

It’s a combination that has done duty throughout the Rugby Championship, but questions around this back-row balance have not gone away as the Boks have continued to struggle to establish ascendancy at the collisions or breakdown, which are such key areas of the game.

During the course of the season, Jaco Kriel has primarily fulfilled a role as a second-half impact player, while the recent recall of big Willem Alberts also saw him entrusted with the task of providing a ball-carrying boost as a replacement.

The back-row battle should be a fascinating one in this Saturday’s Test between the Springboks and Wallabies at Loftus, with Australia having suffered a significant blow after David Pocock recently broke his hand.

His absence removes a considerable breakdown dangerman from the equation, and the Boks will be looking to their loose forwards to ensure quick, clean ball is generated at ruck time.

Springbok assistant coach Matt Proudfoot reiterated that the Bok back row boasted the necessary balance to do the business on Saturday.

‘As coaches, our big focus has been to create momentum in the pack, the South African game plan has always required a dominant pack. 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 defensively and his attacking breakdown work has really improved. That’s one of the roles that spectators don’t really 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.’

Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

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Craig Lewis