The surprise omission of Marcell Coetzee from the Springbok squad to face the British & Irish Lions confirms the world champions will continue to advance with a heavy bench, writes ZELIM NEL.
Coetzee failed to make the cut in an expanded 46-man group to tackle the Lions in three Tests and a once-off match between the tourists and South Africa A. This despite marking his Bulls debut on return from a mid-term injury with an outstanding individual performance in Friday night’s last-minute 31-27 win over the Stormers.
Incumbent Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen was forced from the match with what appeared to be a serious ankle injury and SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus confirmed that Coetzee has been placed on emergency standby. But the delay in calling up the multi-talented 30-Test loose forward confirms that Erasmus has not placed a big premium on versatility in the back row.
While Coetzee was a big-name signing for the Bulls earlier this year after writing his name into Ulster rugby lore, the 30-year-old arrived having made just 57 appearances for the Irish regional team between 2016 and 2021 due to a string of long-term injuries.
He won 26 Test caps between his debut in 2012 and the 2014 year-end tour. Since then, Coetzee has made four appearances for South Africa and his World Cup dreams have twice been shattered by injury, as torn knee ligaments ruled him out of the 2015 showpiece before an ankle injury tore up his ticket to Japan in 2019.
The Boks haven’t played since winning the World Cup and the wholesale recall of every available member of that squad for the Lions series leaves few obvious opportunities for newcomers to break into the match-day squad.
One such opportunity is presented by the retirement of Francois Louw, who served as deputy openside flank to Siya Kolisi in Japan.
Louw was one of six forwards on a heavy Bok bench dubbed the ‘Bomb Squad’ for its explosive impact in closing out games. While the 76-Test flank was a renowned ball-hawk and a respected ball-carrier, he lacked the mobility to be credibly touted as a No 8. Coetzee’s emphatic return to South Afirca presented the Boks with a world-class backup to Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Vermeulen.
Aside from the merits of his experience and leadership attributes, the key is in the quality of Coetzee who, as showcased at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night, would mount a formidable challenge to start against the Lions at any one of the back-row positions.
The same can’t be said of any of the players chosen ahead of him in the 46-man squad. Marco van Staden and Kwagga Smith are specialist fetchers, the Du Preez twins are primarily ball-carrying thumpers, Rynhardt Elstadt is a lumbering enforcer and the uncapped Jasper Wiese only has a couple of months in England to his name.
Coetzee’s omission thus answered any questions around whether the Bok brainstrust may consider reverting to a conventional bench against the Lions – overlooking Coetzee confirmed the list of Bok replacements will continue to include three front-row forwards, and three players to cover lock and the back row.
This is good news for the specialists vying to take over from Louw, not to mention the utility backs in the squad.
With just two seats on the bench reserved for backs, and one of those certain to be filled by the size-30 shorts of a scrumhalf, the 6-2 bench is only as good as the utility back covering multiple decision-making positions.
The definitive utility back, Frans Steyn’s versatility is now certain to cement his place in the match-day 23. The double World Cup winner – who, together with fellow 2009 tour-survivor Morne Steyn, will be chasing the rare feat of winning two series against the Lions – has played flyhalf, centre, wing and fullback during a 67-Test career.
Stormers playmaker Damian Willemse is another versatile back who will feel his value has gone up in the absence of Coetzee.
But there’ll be less excitement from the specialist backs corps, including veterans Morne Steyn and Elton Jantjies, while the uncapped trio of Aphelele Fassi, Wandisile Simelane and Rosko Specman will have to come to terms with using the Lions tour to make a good impression on duty for South Africa A.