Allister Coetzee looks set to name a locally-based starting XV stacked with Lions players for the first Test against France. JON CARDINELLI in Pretoria reports.
The Boks have talked a big game in Pretoria this week. Coetzee and his coaching lieutenants have waxed lyrical about a burgeoning team culture as well as a tactical shift.
Can the Boks complete such a drastic turnaround in the space of a few months? The South African rugby brand sustained significant damage in 2016. The Boks lost eight of their 12 Tests, and dropped to seventh in the World Rugby rankings as a result.
Coetzee is under pressure to produce results in the next three Tests against France. A series defeat could well end his tenure as head coach.
Publicly, Coetzee has sought to assure the media, fans and stakeholders that he is not feeling the pressure. Privately, he must know that it will be do or die for him and his management team over the next three weeks.
That he survived the 2016 season – the Boks’ worst in the professional era – is a miracle in itself.
Meanwhile, France have flown into South Africa under the radar and have settled quickly at their base in Sandton. In theory, the odds are against the French winning two Tests on the highveld and achieving a high level of intensity on the back of a 10-month domestic season.
Neither the coaches nor the players have given one the impression that France are under pressure to deliver a positive result at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday. The French players will have little to prove, and it’s for this reason that they will be dangerous.
Abrasive loose forward Duane Vermeulen has been ruled out of the three-Test series due to a shoulder injury. This has forced Coetzee to rethink his back-row balance and overall team tactics. The loss of one player could indeed impact on the game plan as a whole.
Siya Kolisi, Oupa Mohoje and Warren Whiteley are expected to start in the back row, while Jaco Kriel is likely to be on the bench. The Boks will go into the first Test of the new season without a loose forward who can dominate the tackle at close quarters, or a player who specialises in slowing and stealing ball at the defensive breakdowns.
Vermeulen ticked both those boxes. Kolisi – who began his Super Rugby career as an openside flank and then made a permanent switch to blindside in 2016 – is not a traditional No 6.
While Mohoje and Whiteley offer strong lineout options, and while Whiteley is especially dangerous when deployed on attack in the wider channels, neither player has the appetite, nor the ability to dominate the collisions. This much was evident across a 2016 season in which the Boks were routinely manhandled at the gainline.
Coetzee’s midfield selections may be even less inspiring. The Boks go into this game without Damian de Allende and Lionel Mapoe, and without South Africa’s form centre in the Super Rugby tournament, Lukhanyo Am, who was named in the initial squad prior to sustaining a serious cheekbone injury.
Frans Steyn should be in the match-day squad as cover for centre and flyhalf. This is the same Frans Steyn whose physical talents and kicking prowess meant the difference for the Boks at the 2007 World Cup, the 2009 Tri-Nations, and the 2009 series against the British & Irish Lions.
Instead of backing a world-class option, Coetzee looks set to play it ‘safe’ with the Bulls midfield combination of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel.
Other that that, Coetzee will bank on a host of Lions players. Coetzee sees value in the combination between Andries Coetzee and Courtnall Skosan in the back three, as well as in the partnership of Whiteley, Ross Cronjé and Elton Jantjies at 8, 9 and 10.
What he hasn’t spoken about publicly – and is probably more than a little worried about – is Coetzee, Skosan and Cronjé's lack of Test experience. None of those players have played for the Boks before. Two more rookies in Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds could be thrown into the deep end of the Test rugby swimming pool this Saturday.
Coetzee will name his match 23 for the first Test at 2pm on Thursday.
Probable Boks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Su bs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi