The Springboks will lose all four tour matches if they don’t snap out of their current state of apathy, writes JON CARDINELLI in Paris.
Duane Vermeulen is back in France. The Bok No 8 returned to the country on Sunday after enjoying a short trip to South Africa to visit with friends and family.
As was the case a week before the Ireland Test, Vermeulen is fit – he recently completed two matches for Toulon after a lengthy spell on the sidelines – and available for selection.
The Boks need Vermeulen now more than ever. They were handed a physical and tactical lesson in Dublin last week. The intensity and organisation of the defence – Vermeulen’s forte – was completely lacking in that fixture.
What’s more, the Boks sustained two injuries in that record 38-3 defeat. Tighthead Coenie Oosthuizen (knee) has already returned to South Africa. One would expect Wilco Louw and Ruan Dreyer to feature in the match-day squad against France this Saturday.
Pieter-Steph du Toit’s concussion presents the Boks with a problem, or rather an even bigger problem. Loose forwards such as Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Jean-Luc du Preez were ruled out of the four-Test tour due to serious injuries, while Vermeulen was deemed unfit for Test rugby.
Du Toit started against the All Blacks at Newlands, and was backed to start again against Ireland in Dublin this past Saturday. The Bok loose trio was completely outplayed at the Aviva Stadium – in the words of Francois Louw, ‘Ireland had the Boks’ number in that area’ – and Du Toit had a game to forget. That said, the utility forward’s concussion presents Coetzee with a different sort of headache.
Uzair Cassiem is not a like-for-like replacement at blindside. A back row featuring Siya Kolisi, Cassiem and Louw lacks the same balance as the one that featured in Cape Town and Dublin. So too does the combination of Kolisi, Louw and Dan du Preez, who is yet to play a Test.
Not that that combination of Kolisi, Du Toit and Louw was successful against Ireland. The point is that the Boks need a player who can boost them in the departments of physicality and defence. They also need another breakdown specialist who can match the northern hemisphere opposition on the ground; someone, other than Louw, who understands the conditions and the way the game is played in this part of the world.
Will Coetzee see reason and recall Vermeulen? The No 8 as well as the veteran Frans Steyn are based in France. Surely it’s simply a matter of picking up the phone and asking the pair to catch the next domestic flight to Paris?
Then again, Coetzee could have met with the incoming director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, in Dublin last week, but chose not to. Coetzee and company felt that they had every angle covered in the lead-up to the Ireland game. In the aftermath, however, Coetzee admitted that the Boks had been outsmarted by Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.
The manner in which Coetzee spoke about the Boks’ woeful performance was concerning. He didn’t appear terribly upset in the wake of the heaviest-ever defeat to Ireland.
He suggested that changes were on the cards. At the same time, he gave one the impression that the Boks don’t really have the players on tour to turn things around.
Assistant coach Johann van Graan will link up with Munster after the Test against France. Defence consultant Brendan Venter will not be available when the Boks face Italy in Padua.
One way or another, this story is coming to an end.
Coetzee is likely to coach the side for the remainder of the tour. One cannot see him continuing into the 2018 season, though.
What about the next three matches? The nation is hurting. The fans are desperate for a response.
Can this group of Boks deliver a series of spirited performances in Paris, Padua and Cardiff and give supporters a reason to believe that the South Africa rugby aura is not – as many an Irish scribe wrote in the wake of the last game in Dublin – dead?
Coetzee could do the team a favour by recalling those veterans. Vermeulen and Steyn would only be available for the clashes against France and Italy, but their influence may well serve to galvanise the younger players in the squad.
The leadership of Eben Ezebeth, Kolisi, Louw and the other senior players will be under scrutiny this week. The rugby world will be watching to see how the Boks respond after one of the most abject performances in their long history.
Photo: Ben Radford/Getty Images