The Springboks desperately need Duane Vermeulen and Willem Alberts to be fit for the World Cup, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It’s understandable that a large part of the buildup to the Rugby Championship revolved around the recovery of Jean de Villiers, and his long-awaited comeback against the World XV at Newlands on 11 July.
De Villiers remains on track to be available for the World Cup, but in his absence Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have been two of the shining lights for the Boks.
The young midfield duo have shown enough in the last two Tests against the Wallabies and All Blacks to provide Heyneke Meyer with quite a headache as he decides on the best way to reintegrate De Villiers.
While that’s one healthy headache just 53 days away from the World Cup, Meyer may well be suffering something resembling a bit more of a migraine as he ponders his loose-trio options for the global event.
Meyer has always said it was going to be an incredibly difficult task to whittle down his World Cup selections when it came to the back row, such was the depth at his disposal. However, that matter has been complicated by the concerning injuries to Vermeulen and Alberts.
Vermeulen underwent neck surgery in July, and while he is expected to be available for the World Cup, he would go into the tournament short on game time.
Similarly, Alberts has endured an injury-plagued year, with one ailment after another curtailing his Vodacom Super Rugby involvement, while he is yet to feature for the Boks this year. It could be a struggle for the ‘bone collector’ to get to the World Cup fit and in form.
In the absence of the Boks’ first-choice No 8 and blindside flank, coupled with the less serious injury to Marcell Coetzee last week, Meyer was forced to change his game plan against the All Blacks, and also to a degree against the Wallabies.
Meyer has had to cut his coat according to his cloth, which has seen him select a mobile loose-trio combination that possesses the ability to dominate the breakdown battle. And dominate they have.
In Brisbane, the Boks won 13 turnovers to the Wallabies’ six, while they also caused all sorts of problems as they disrupted the All Blacks’ breakdown ball last Saturday.
It has been a complete team effort in this regard, though, as highlighted by the fact Bismarck du Plessis has been the chief breakdown ball stealer, and is currently ranked No 2 in terms of turnovers won.
But it’s clear that what the Boks may have lost from their more renowned lineout loose forwards, they’ve made up for by generally bossing the breakdown.
Coetzee was outstanding in the game against the Wallabies, Schalk Burger has been an absolute force at No 8, while Heinrich Brüssow did enough on Saturday to show the value he can add to the team.
Francois Louw has been the fulcrum around which the new-look loose trio has been able to operate, but he picked up a worrying shoulder injury against the All Blacks.
Warren Whiteley, who was expected to receive another opportunity to start at No 8 against Argentina also cracked his ribs in the same game, and is unlikely to feature for the Boks before the World Cup.
Suddenly, the loose-trio situation is looking rather dire.
And as much as the Boks have benefited from their ball stealing propensity, the fact remains that they had to move away from their regular game plan and traditional strengths.
No longer did they have the likes of Vermeulen and Alberts to dominate the gainline with their ball-carrying power, or to act as momentum shifters with big-hitting tackles.
Vermeulen, especially, is no mug at the lineout, and it was his all-round game that saw the Stormers captain deservedly named SA Player of the Year for 2014, while also running as a contender for the World Rugby Player of the Year award.
The Springboks need these big men back. Like it or not, the Boks’ ability to physically dominate and base their power game around such strong ball-carriers and defenders will be key to their World Cup cause.
Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images