Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are masters at problem-solving, so what could be the alternatives if Duane Vermeulen is unavailable to face the British & Irish Lions? CRAIG LEWIS assesses.
Even for eternal optimists like Erasmus and Nienaber, the serious injury to Vermeulen must have felt like a hammer blow.
The 34-year-old underwent successful surgery on his ankle on Wednesday, and according to Nienaber, recovery from such an injury can take anything from five to 16 weeks.
One way or another, the Boks will be planning for the possibility of playing without the services of their talismanic No 8.
Vermeulen’s recent form and influence for the Bulls had only served to underline his value, while his impact at the 2019 World Cup and particularly his man-of-the-match performance in the final had him emerge as one of the Boks’ most important players.
Besides his vast experience and leadership as vice-captain, the burly eighthman is both a momentum stopper on defence and gainline bully with ball in hand.
He is an option at lineout time, predominantly the go-to man when receiving kick-offs, while as both a cleaner and ball-stealer at the breakdown he is in a class of his own. His game smarts also mean he is a crucial on-field organiser of the team’s intricate defensive system.
All in all, it makes Vermeulen close to an irreplaceable player. Yet, from the moment the Boks were ‘fearing the worst’ over his injury, they would have begun to think about the readjustments that could be necessary to the balance of their back row.
Here we look at those options:
As Erasmus stated at the Springboks’ squad announcement media conference, Wiese knocked the door down through a series of consistently imposing performances with the Leicester Tigers in England.
The 25-year-old is more than comfortable at No 8, and offers real mobility for a big man, who also boasts some of the softer touches through a strong offloading game.
Wiese is a warrior who teammates would want to go to war with, but it would be a big call to back a Test debutant to step into the shoes vacated by a 54-Test-cap stalwart such as Vermeulen.
Yet, it also can’t be forgotten how some 12 years ago, a player such as Heinrich Brussow started the first Test against the Lions in just his second Bok appearance, successfully emerging as a lethal ‘secret weapon’.
A lot has already been said about Coetzee’s initial omission from the extended Bok 46-man squad, but rather than call him into a training camp at this point, the national coaches have seen greater value in allowing him to continue banking game time with the Bulls.
As an industrious ball-carrier, robust defender and real threat at the breakdown, Coetzee – who also has 30 Test caps under his belt – would be the closest to a like-for-like replacement.
The 25-year-old last played for the Boks in 2018, but in recent seasons has taken his game to another level with the Sale Sharks to force his way back into the national frame.
Blessed with all the natural talents, Du Preez is an out-and-out No 8, and looks to have added more subtleties to his play than just looking to smash the daylights out of opponents.
As it is, he has both the athleticism to step around defenders and the strength to bulldoze over them. However, it’s in this regard that his decision-making has improved, while also making better judgements around when to offload in contact.
So, while Coetzee and Wiese may be viewed as the more likely front-runners to take over from Vermeulen, the time Du Preez has spent evolving his game in England does make him the sort of player who wouldn’t let the Boks down.
Complete left-field options would be to consider shifting Siya Kolisi or Kwagga Smith into a rare switch to No 8, but that is highly unlikely.
Below is the full list of loose forwards who were originally included in the Springbok 46-man squad.
Dan du Preez (Sale Sharks, 4 caps, 0 pts)
Pieter-Steph du Toit (DHL Stormers, 55 caps, 25 pts)
Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks, 50 caps, 30 pts)
Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo, 6 caps, 0 pts)
Marco van Staden (Bulls, 3 caps, 0 pts)
Duane Vermeulen (Bulls, 54 caps, 15 pts)
Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers, uncapped)
Jean-Luc du Preez (Sale Sharks, 13 caps, 10 pts)
Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse, 2 caps, 0 pts)