Coetzee’s back-row blues

Allister Coetzee may be forced to change his starting back row for the third Test. That said, an unforced back-row change is overdue, writes JON CARDINELLI in Port Elizabeth.

On Saturday evening, the Bok coach confirmed that Duane Vermeulen (elbow) and Warren Whiteley (shoulder) had sustained injuries in the second Test against Ireland. The Boks could go into the third and decisive game at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium without a specialist No 8.

Coetzee is expected to give an update on the pair’s condition at a press conference in Port Elizabeth on Monday. It will be interesting to see if the Bok coach calls for specialist cover from outside the existing squad of 31.

Coetzee did exactly that last week when Pat Lambie was ruled out with concussion. Morné Steyn came into the squad and was fast-tracked into the match 23.

Other than Vermeulen and Whiteley, the Boks don’t possess an out-and-out No 8 in the current squad. If one or both are ruled out, will Coetzee back one of his remaining loose forwards to fill the gap, or will he bring in another specialist?

Vermeulen has picked up his second niggle in as many weeks. South Africa’s first-choice No 8 sustained a knee injury in the first Test, and did not train much in the lead-up to the second. The elbow ailment incurred at Ellis Park looked serious.

Whiteley made an impact when coming off the bench in the second stanza at Ellis Park. However, Coetzee confirmed afterwards that the athletic No 8 had injured his AC joint. If that injured shoulder doesn’t heal in time, and Vermeulen fails to pass fit, Coetzee will have a big call to make.

Sikhumbuzo Notshe has started just one match for the Stormers at No 8 this season. Jaco Kriel plays most of his rugby for the Lions at No 6. While Francois Louw and Siya Kolisi have played for the Boks on both sides of the scrum, neither has packed down at No 8 at Test level.

Will Coetzee dip into the SA A side for a No 8 option? Arno Botha hasn’t exactly set the world alight this season. Nizaam Carr has been disappointing for the Stormers in 2016, and was lacklustre in the recent series against the England Saxons. The SA A loose forwards as a group were outplayed at the collisions and breakdowns.

Overall, the Boks aren’t spoiled for loose forward options at present. It may seem that way because two of the best in the business (Vermeulen and Louw) are still in the squad, and some of the most promising athletes (Whiteley, Kriel and Notshe) are pushing for inclusion.

Vermeulen and Louw are coming off a long season in Europe, and also appear to be battling for form. Whiteley, Kriel and Notshe have many attacking gifts, but also some limitations in terms of physicality.

Getting the balance right in terms of the selection of the starting back row, as well as the selection of the player on the bench, was always going to be tricky considering the players available to Coetzee in this series.

The Boks have not impressed at the breakdown in this series. Their ball carrying has, for the most part, been one of their biggest weaknesses. They haven’t dominated the collisions, and they haven’t protected the ball.

Their ability to force turnovers has been sadly lacking. The Boks forced just one defensive turnover in the first Test against Ireland, and two in the second, according to’s Opta-powered stats. Ireland made 10 turnovers at Ellis Park last week.

Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli