Coetzee forced to gamble

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee is set to pick three specialist locks in his starting pack for the must-win clash with England at Twickenham, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.

‘If Donald Trump can win a presidential election, perhaps the Springboks can beat England.’ It’s a joke I’ve heard more than once over the past 24 hours. The would-be jokers over here in London believe that a Bok win at Twickenham this Saturday is unlikely, but that stranger things have happened.

Coetzee will name his matchday squad at 15:00 (SA time) today. With so many loose forwards either injured or unavailable, Coetzee is expected to favour Willem Alberts and Pieter-Steph du Toit on the flanks, and Warren Whiteley at No 8.

It doesn’t take a rugby genius to see that that back row lacks balance. Coetzee, however, doesn’t have any other choice, bar moving Nizaam Carr, who has never started a Test and who plays No 8 for the Stormers, to openside flank. Even Coetzee, who coached Carr at the Stormers, will probably admit that Carr’s particular strengths are ill-suited to a physical battle against the English at Twickenham.

There’s been plenty of speculation about the Bok back row this week. On Monday, I wrote that Coetzee should field all three of his world-class locks in the starting side. I argued that with Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager in the second row and with Du Toit at No 8, the Boks stood a chance of imposing themselves with their strong ball-carrying and lineout options.

The opportunity to field Roelof Smit, Alberts and Du Toit in the same starting loose trio, however, was dashed when Smit sustained a tour-ending pectoral injury during training on Monday morning.

Nobody in the media was on hand to witness the injury – as a paranoid Bok management team had moved to eject all reporters and cameramen after just 15 minutes – and thus nobody was able to say with any certainty who else had trained in those loose-forward positions at the Upper Latymer School.

Coetzee did say on Monday that he would consider a less traditional openside flank for the match against England. A day later, forwards coach Matt Proudfoot brushed aside suggestions that such a one-dimensional combination would lack balance.

Proudfoot expressed his confidence in the chosen trio, and said he expected a lift in performance at the collisions and breakdowns in the game against England.

Perhaps the Boks can draw hope from the fact that England have sustained similar losses in that openside position. The English media has described Tom Wood, who is likely to start there against the Boks, as a ‘6-and-a-half at best’. They have revisited Eddie Jones’s initial assessment of Wood. The England coach once described Wood as ‘distinctly average’.

Jones will name his side to front the Boks at 14:45 (SA time) today. Wood, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola are expected to be in the starting back row, while the enforcer Courtney Lawes should also be included in the pack.

Will Jones fire a few verbal missiles at his opposite number when speaking at the press conference at Pennyhill Park this afternoon? It wouldn’t be out of character.

Earlier this year, Jones used the press-conference platform to great effect. He got inside the head of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, and England went on to claim a 3-0 series win in Australia.

Jones and Coetzee are good mates, having worked together under Jake White during the Boks’ World Cup-winning campaign in 2007. But all is fair in love and rugby.

A couple of months ago, Jones described the Boks as nothing more than bullies. It was an attempt to get inside the minds of the South African coaches. This week, Coetzee and Proudfoot smarted when they were reminded about Jones's jibe. Clearly Jones has touched a nerve.

The Boks have not come across as especially confident in the buildup to the clash at Twickenham. This isn’t surprising when you consider their 2016 record of five losses in nine Tests.

That said, there was a point two years ago, following the 29-15 loss to Ireland, when you got the feeling that the Boks were on the brink of a monumental physical performance. In the wake of that defeat in Dublin, the Boks headed to London with something to prove.

A koppestamp session was held during the very first practice of the week. The players knocked the stuffing out of each other. Every player that I spoke to after that said he was itching to have a crack at England. They were desperate to redeem themselves.

Two years on, and this Bok team seems resigned to the fact that they will lose to England.

On Tuesday, Warrent Whiteley trotted out cliches such as 'trusting in the process' and 'not worrying too much about the result'. The most honest statement came from Proudfoot, who conceded that the Boks’ recent gainline performances were nothing to be proud of, a big admission when one remembers that gainline dominance is central to South African rugby pride.

It will be interesting to see whether Coetzee makes a statement today, first with his selections, and then with his message. Up until now, the Boks have lacked fire both on and off the pitch. Either they are masking their true emotions, or they truly don't believe that a win against England on Saturday is possible.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli