Allister Coetzee has made a popular call to install Warren Whiteley as his Springbok captain and first-choice No 8. Whether it is the best decision for a team with everything to prove in 2017 is another story, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Can we forget about the eight Test defeats of 2016, or the humiliation attached to specific losses against the All Blacks in Durban and to Italy in Florence?
By the end of last year, most were in agreement that Coetzee’s Boks were the worst South African national side of the professional era. Many lamented the loss of a physical aura. For the proudest of South African rugby supporters, this hurt as much as a record of eight defeats in a single season.
Unbelievably, Coetzee received a stay of execution. When Coetzee addressed the media in Stellenbosch earlier this year, he said that he and his lieutenants had learned some valuable lessons. He committed to lifting the standards of the side in 2017 with the ultimate aim of restoring some pride to the Bok jersey.
On Tuesday, Coetzee announced his 31-man squad for the three-Test series against France in June. The biggest surprise was the selection of Whiteley ahead of Duane Vermeulen as Bok captain.
Coetzee said that the decision was an easy one to make given that Whiteley had deputised for Adriaan Strauss over the course of last season. Perhaps Coetzee forgot that on-field leadership was one of the Boks’ biggest weaknesses in 2016.
The decision to install Whiteley as captain appears to be a popular one with the fans. Whiteley has been at the helm of the Lions, South Africa’s leading Super Rugby team, for the past four seasons. The stats show that Whiteley is one of South African rugby’s leading attacking players – at least at Super Rugby level.
Yet it would be a stretch to suggest that Whiteley has had the same impact as a player and leader at Test level. In 2016, the Boks lost seven of the 10 Tests in which Whiteley started. The Boks were badly beaten at the collisions and breakdowns, and by the end of the year most were in agreement that the South Africans no longer commanded fear or respect in these departments.
That the Boks need to improve in these areas is not up for debate. South Africa cannot hope to score more tries and win more matches in 2017 without a powerful set piece. The team cannot hope to breach defences when they're losing the tackle fight as they did in 2016.
Is Whiteley the right man to lead the physical charge and inspire a turnaround in gainline fortunes? His record suggests not. Indeed, that very job may be left to the man whom Whiteley has beaten to the captaincy post, namely Vermeulen.
Vermeulen is a former World Rugby Player of the Year nominee and SA Rugby Players’ Player of the Year winner. Over the past decade, he’s built up a reputation as one of the hardest players in the game.
Indeed, the Boks certainly missed Vermeulen's prowess as a ball-carrier at the gainline and as a ball-winner at the breakdown last year (he missed 10 of the 12 Tests), not to mention his ability to marshall the team’s defence.
A strong argument can be made for Vermeulen as a Bok captain. It may come up again later this year if Coetzee is ousted and a new Bok coach comes to power.
For now, one has to wonder why Coetzee would overlook such a strong player and leader, and why he would ask Vermeulen to play out of position.
On Tuesday, Coetzee confirmed that he would be doing exactly that. With Whiteley installed as the new Bok captain and first-choice No 8, Vermeulen will move to blindside flank.
Coetzee’s other back-row selections make for confusing reading. Vermeulen is presumably the back-up to Whiteley at No 8 and the first-choice blindside. Yet there are two more blindside options in the Bok group of 31 in Siya Kolisi and Oupa Mohoje, and only one openside option in Jaco Kriel.
Coetzee confirmed that Vermeulen and Kolisi would support Whiteley as leaders in the Bok set-up. This statement suggests that all three could start as a combination against France. However, that could see Kolisi moving back to No 6. At the start of 2016, Kolisi was tasked with developing his game as a specialist blindside.
Including Vermeulen, only four overseas-based players have been selected. While 2007 World Cup-winner Frans Steyn should add some physicality in the midfield and offer another strong tactical-kicking option, one has to wonder why other gainline bullies like hooker Bismarck du Plessis (Montpellier) and wing JP Pietersen (Leicester) have been overlooked.
The Boks’ back-three options lack bulk and experience. Ruan Combrinck, one of the standouts for the Boks in an otherwise disappointing 2016 season, has been picked in the South Africa A squad. It’s but one of many confusing selections.
Blindside flank Jean-Luc du Preez may be wondering what he’s done to deserve relegation to the SA A team. The impressive Lions No 7 Ruan Ackermann has missed out altogether.
Pat Lambie and Handré Pollard’s injury struggles have left the Boks light at flyhalf. Elton Jantjies, another player who looked out of his depth at Test level in 2016, will win another opportunity as a result.
Outside of Jantjies, Coetzee may look to Steyn as a flyhalf option. Lionel Cronjé and Fred Zeilinga are the alternatives, but will begin the Test season with the SA A side.
Sharks star Lukhanyo Am has won a deserved call-up on the back of a strong Super Rugby season, and could be asked to start in that problematic No 13 channel. It’s going to be interesting to see exactly who lines up in the backs this June, and how the untried combinations fare against a more settled France side.
Photo: Marty Melville/AFP Photo