The selection of Pat Lambie and Morné Steyn in the Springboks’ starting lineup highlights a desperate need for experience and leadership in the backline, writes CRAIG LEWIS in Johannesburg.
Ahead of this Saturday’s clash with the Wallabies at Loftus, the Boks have turned to their third flyhalf and fullback since the start of the season.
Lambie, who started the June series against Ireland as the Boks’ first-choice pivot, has now been included at 15 after a lengthy injury layoff, while Steyn – who was not part of the Bok squad at the start of the season – has suddenly won back a starting berth.
Both selections represent a ‘win at all costs’ mentality that has taken hold after the Boks have suffered three successive defeats in the Rugby Championship. Already this year, the Boks have experienced a first-ever defeat to Ireland in South Africa, and lost to the Pumas for the first time in Argentina.
Considering that the All Blacks would be almost universally expected to emerge victorious in Durban next weekend, the Boks now desperately need to secure a win this Saturday to stave off a campaign that has yielded just one win thus far.
What has been clear since the start of the season is that the Boks have desperately lacked cohesion and experience in the backline.
Take away the 121 caps that Bryan Habana has accrued, and it was particularly revealing that in the first two Tests against Argentina this season, the Boks fielded a backline that otherwise had less than 40 combined caps.
Backline changes for more recent Tests against Australia and New Zealand saw Juan de Jongh (17 Tests caps), Jesse Kriel (16) and Francois Hougaard (37) add additional experience, but the question remains as to whether such players have been deployed in their best positions.
De Jongh has always seemed more naturally suited to the outside centre berth, where his quick feet and defensive organisation are of greater value.
Hougaard’s inclusion on the wing was also strange considering that he had last started there for the Boks back in 2012, and primarily since then had expressed a desire to focus on his scrumhalf play.
Although that wasn’t always possible at the Bulls, it’s where he has played since joining the Worcester Warriors this year. His selection at left wing for the Boks also forced Bryan Habana to make the switch to the less familiar right-wing position.
And then while Kriel has predominantly plied his trade at outside centre for the Boks, many believe his best position is in fact at fullback, where he first made a name for himself in Super Rugby last year.
Fullback has particularly proven to be a problematic position for the Boks this year, with Willie le Roux being displaced by Johan Goosen after he battled for form during the June series, but the latter has now been dropped after failing to fire at 15. Yet, the question also has to be asked, is Goosen’s best position at fullback?
While he did impress there for Racing 92 this past season, he was also used regularly at outside centre, and at flyhalf when required.
This then brings us to the selection of Lambie to start at fullback for the first time since the end-of-year tour in 2013, with the 25-year-old having almost exclusively specialised at flyhalf over the last couple of years.
Yet, Allister Coetzee insisted on Thursday that Lambie’s leadership, experience, communication and safety under the high ball meant his selection at fullback was ‘not a gamble’.
With the selection of Lambie and Steyn, the Boks have bolstered their backline with 115 caps of experience. Coetzee has selected two reliable players who he hopes will add some much-needed direction through strong game management and accurate decision-making.
Neither are likely to be long-term options in those positions, certainly not Steyn, but these are desperate times for Bok rugby, and a win is now the only priority, whichever way it comes.
However, there's no doubt that selecting some players out of position will continue to lead to more questions than answers at a troubling time in Springbok rugby.
Photo: Gallo Images