Coetzee must back bruisers

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee needs to back players and combinations that can stand up to the physicality and mongrel of England at Twickenham, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.

Willem Alberts, Johan Goosen, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Steven Kitshoff, Willie le Roux, Vincent Koch, Lionel Mapoe, Franco Mostert, JP Pietersen and Warren Whiteley only linked up with the team in London on Sunday. Those players won’t have much time to adapt to the conditions or to settle into potentially new combinations ahead of the crunch match at Twickenham.

That said, Coetzee cannot afford to back the bulk of the side that did duty against the Barbarians at Wembley. He needs to field an experienced combination in the tour-defining clash with England. Given the nature of the opposition, Coetzee needs to back players who have the physical ability as well as the appetite for a fight in the trenches.

On Sunday, England coach Eddie Jones confirmed that his charges are gearing up for a monumental physical battle. Everyone in the English rugby community, from the former players and coaches to the most respected journalists and commentators, is expecting a brutal England performance. Everyone on this side of the equator is expecting a famous England win.

Coetzee must look to back experience and ensure that the most physical specimens are on the frontline at Twickenham. Some might consider that previous statement as conservative. Yet, the selection of a team that is both seasoned and physical will involve a few risks.

Barring further injuries, one would expect Beast Mtawarira, Adriaan Strauss and Vincent Koch to start in the front row. Steven Kitshoff, a powerful scrummager who plays his club rugby in Europe and understands the conditions, must be on the bench.

Where Coetzee must be bold is in the selection of his second and back rows. The Boks possess three world-class locks, but only one heavyweight loose forward in the current squad.

Coetzee has to field Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit in the same starting XV. It's a risk that may just might pay off.

Du Toit ticks the boxes of lineout prowess, physicality, and mobility. His selection at No 8 would ensure that the Boks went into Saturday's clash with plenty of ball-carrying and lineout options.

Willem Alberts is better utilised in the early exchanges when the game is still being fought in the trenches. Alberts needs to start this Saturday, and needs to neutralise England's bully boys at the gainline.

Roelof Smit has no experience at this level and struggled for consistency in the recent game against the Barbarians. Yet, Smit may crack the nod at No 6 given the Boks have no other specialist openside alternatives.

While this is by no means the strongest back row in the world, it may just be the strongest back row the Boks can field at present.

It would surprise to see Coetzee changing the halfback pairing of Rudy Paige and Pat Lambie at this stage. The selections at Nos 12 and 13 will be crucial, given their task at the gainline.

Damian de Allende has been on the Test scene for three seasons, while Rohan Janse van Rensburg is yet to win a Test cap. Coetzee has to decide which of the two players has the confidence as well as the ability to win the collisions.

De Allende has been battling for form of late, and has never been known for his defensive accuracy. Meanwhile, the raw yet undoubtedly talented Janse van Rensburg made a strong physical statement against the Barbarians this past Saturday.

There’s no easy answer at No 13. Francois Venter battled to adjust to the speed and intensity of the Barbarians attack, and the Boks were breached out wide on numerous occasions.

Coetzee may, however, be inclined to retain the combination of Janse van Rensburg and Venter for a second consecutive game. The alternative pairing of De Allende and Lionel Mapoe has had its own problems in 2016.

If the robust and experienced Pietersen is fit, he must start on the right wing. Bryan Habana may also be preferred ahead of Ruan Combrinck due to his experience. Coetzee may want a more experienced back three in place if he is going to entrust two rookies in the centres.

Johan Goosen would offer the Boks a solid tactical-kicking option at No 15. Goosen, who was in fine form recently for Racing 92, may also have a key role to play in taking the long-range place kicks. Like Pietersen and Combrinck, Willie le Roux still needs to be cleared of an injury.

The makeup of the bench must suit the conditions as well as the nature of the contest. It wouldn’t surprise to see Coetzee loading his bench with six forwards.

Coetzee has to do something bold and different in the buildup to such an important game. This combination could represent South Africa’s best chance of an unlikely victory.

Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli