Both Johan Goosen and Jesse Kriel can make their mark at fullback in this season’s Rugby Championship, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
One of the eye-catching elements of Allister Coetzee’s 31-man squad announcement at the beginning of the month was the fact that no specialist fullback was included in the group.
Since 2013, Willie le Roux has virtually held a monopoly on the No 15 jersey with 31 Test starts, but there is no doubt that the Boks have missed a trick in failing to blood some backup options at fullback over recent seasons.
Admittedly, though, this is a position where there has hardly been an abundance of players knocking down the Bok door. Cheslin Kolbe displayed some encouraging signs during this past Super Rugby season, but he has been involved with the Blitzboks after committing to their Olympic campaign.
Kolbe may well receive his opportunity to join the Boks down the line, but there are a number of aspects of his game that would also need to be considerably improved upon if he were to make a successful step up to Test rugby.
In recent times, Le Roux’s star has also begun to wane, and understandably he has been overlooked for the current squad in order to have some time out of the spotlight as he heads to Japan for another season.
However, it’s left the Boks with pretty slim pickings at fullback. Ruan Combrinck undoubtedly has the potential to make the transition to this position with his natural running game and big right boot, but it’s believed that he will continue to focus on his role on the wing for now.
It’s led to a somewhat surprise recall for Goosen, who was once touted as South Africa’s next big thing at flyhalf, but last played for the Boks when starting at fullback on the end of year tour in 2014.
It was his sixth Test appearance for the Boks, and came soon after his move to Racing 92 in France. Goosen’s departure was seen as the loss of another South African star to overseas pastures, but by all accounts his game has grown immeasurably on the European scene.
He’s featured at outside centre and fullback, and also filled in at flyhalf, while playing a key role as Racing clinched their first Top 14 title since 1990.
From the start of his tenure, Coetzee has said he is unlikely to consider an overseas-based player if there are equally good options based in South Africa, and certainly not to serve as third choice in his position.
It suggests an opportunity for Goosen to reassert himself on the international stage, and it’s his kicking game that should give him the edge. The former Cheetahs star will offer the Boks another big right-footed kicking option when it comes to their exit plays, while along with Combrinck, there are two players who could step up for long-range goal kicks.
The Boks desperately need to develop their depth at fullback, but while Goosen is probably the frontrunner to initially claim the No 15 jersey, Kriel should receive an opportunity to slot in at fullback at some stage this season.
The 22-year-old has had a disappointing year after his breakthrough season in 2015, when he started nine Tests at outside centre. It’s also where he continued to feature for the Bulls this season, but lest we forget, Kriel made his Super Rugby debut at fullback last year, and it’s his performances there that initially earned him a place in the Bok set-up.
The need for an outside centre ultimately served to initiate his transition to 13, but Kriel’s powerful running game is surely better suited to the fullback berth, where he would have the space to showcase his skills.
Coetzee retained faith in Le Roux during the June series against Ireland, but his performances were continually erratic. The Boks are desperately calling out for someone to authoritatively take control of the No 15 jersey and make it their own. It’s now up to Goosen and Kriel to answer that call.
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