Coetzee takes knife to gunfight

The Springboks look set to continue their decline now that Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and several other experienced performers have been ruled out of the tour to Europe this November, writes JON CARDINELLI​.

‘Surely not?’

A colleague spoke these words to me as we sat in the press area of the Brighton Community Stadium on 19 September 2015. It was half-time, and the scoreboard read: Springboks 12 Japan 10.

‘Surely not?’ he half-asked, half-pleaded. ‘Surely the Boks can’t lose to Japan?’

In 2016, I’ve found myself revisiting this phrase again and again. As in, surely the Boks can’t lose to a 14-man Ireland side in South Africa? Surely they can’t lose to the Pumas in Argentina? Surely they won’t allow the All Blacks to put 50 points past them at home?

The 2016 Rugby Championship has concluded, and the focus has shifted to the end-of-year tour. Again, I have to half-ask, half-plead: surely the Boks can’t be any worse in Europe than they were in the recent tournament? Surely they can’t lose to Wales for the third time ever, and to Italy for the first time in history?

This battling Bok side should lose to a resurgent England at Twickenham on 12 November. That said, part of me wants to believe that the Boks still have what it takes to outlast Wales. I used to think that a loss to Italy was impossible until I saw a Bok side stacked with experienced players lose to Japan at the 2015 World Cup.

Allister Coetzee’s Boks could lose at least two of their three Tests this November. This statement is based on Coetzee’s recent squad selections as much as the team’s wretched 44% win record in 2016.

To be fair, a number of players are unavailable due to serious injuries. First-choice flyhalf Handré Pollard has not featured at all this season. Hooker Bismarck du Plessis, prop Frans Malherbe, flank Francois Louw and centre Jan Serfontein will be missed in northern hemisphere conditions.

The absence of Duane Vermeulen will be felt. In the lead-up to the Test against the All Blacks at Kings Park, Vermeulen made his return from injury in a club match for Toulon. When asked Coetzee why Vermeulen had not been brought straight back into the Bok squad – a relevant question considering Coetzee himself and others among the coaching staff had spoken about Vermeulen as a key member of the senior group – the head coach said there was ‘no particular reason’.

Coetzee felt that the Boks did not need Vermeulen at that stage, although the subsequent 57-15 defeat highlighted the folly of such a statement. And then, after a Test that saw the Boks leaking nine tries, Vermeulen took a risk by coming forward and highlighting the flaws in the SA Rugby system in a powerful media interview.

Two weeks later, Vermeulen was left out of the squad for the three-Test tour of Europe. The squad was announced a day after the Bok No 8 had led Toulon to a 15-5 win against Sale in the Champions Cup. Still, Coetzee confirmed via a press release that Vermeulen was not selected for the Boks’ tour because his conditioning was ‘not up to international standard’.

It seemed a bizarre statement to make given Coetzee had criticised the conditioning standards throughout South Africa only two days before at a national coaches indaba in Cape Town. What’s more, the performances of the Bok loose trio in the recent Rugby Championship were nothing to shout about.

The Boks will miss a player of Vermeulen’s talents on the coming tour. The No 8 is one of the world’s premier players at the gainline and breakdown, and is also renowned for his ability to organise the defence.

Morné Steyn has been axed in the wake of the Boks’ heavy loss to the All Blacks. It would be difficult to defend Steyn’s showing in that match, especially with regard to his one-on-one tackling. Yet, Pat Lambie, playing at fullback, was rusty in the matches against Australia and New Zealand, and Elton Jantjies’s flaws as a tactician and goal-kicker were exposed in the earlier rounds of the Rugby Championship.

Coetzee called for more balance at the recent indaba in Cape Town. He called for players who can fit into any game plan. Who then is going to start at flyhalf on the coming tour? Johan Goosen appears to have all the skills required of a modern flyhalf, but will Coetzee be brave enough to back him in that No 10 position?

The makeup of the loose trio will be fiercely debated in the coming weeks, as will that of the midfield. Once again, Coetzee has gone into a series of internationals with insufficient options at No 12.

Damian de Allende was backed at inside centre for the first five Tests of the year, dropped from the match 23 for the Test in Brisbane, and then sent back to his province when the Boks tackled Australia in Pretoria. De Allende is not playing with confidence at the moment, and one wonders why Coetzee hasn’t included more inside centre options for a tour of this nature.

Lionel Mapoe, Jesse Kriel and the uncapped Francois Venter are all specialist No 13s. Rohan Janse van Rensburg is in the squad for the match against the Barbarians, but will not feature in the three Tests unless there is an injury. Frans Steyn, who has won a World Cup playing in that position for the Boks, would have added great value in that No 12 channel, but has not been selected as Coetzee maintains that he has everything he needs in the current squad.

Bulls flank Roelof Smit and lock RG Snyman have earned the right to a call-up, and fans have every reason to feel excited about their respective debuts in South African colours. Another positive is Ruan Combrinck’s return from injury. The winger was one of the Boks’ few stars in an otherwise disappointing series against Ireland in June.

But overall, the squad lacks quality and experience, and it’s hard to be optimistic about the Boks’ chances this November. The Boks could lose their first Test to England in 10 years, and there could be more pain in the post when they tackle Italy and Wales.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli