Coetzee’s backline conundrum

Jesse Kriel’s injury may force at least one change to the Springbok back division ahead of the second Test against France, writes JON CARDINELLI in Durban.

Those who watched the first Test of the series at Loftus Versfeld on TV would have noted the effect that Henry Chavancy’s carry had on the Bok No 13. Indeed, Kriel came off second best in a monumental collision, and was left writhing on the turf.

What happened a few seconds later may have been missed by those who were not at the ground. Kriel, in an admirable attempt to rejoin the Bok defensive line, tried to get up. He took a couple of steps before stumbling. Another attempt produced the same result. If Kriel was a boxer, he wouldn’t have been allowed to continue his bout.

Kriel was subsequently helped from the field. He did not return, presumably after having a head injury assessment, and coach Allister Coetzee confirmed later that there were fears that the No 13 had sustained a concussion.

The severity of Kriel’s injury will be made public later on Monday. If the centre is ruled out, Coetzee may be forced to make at least one change to his backline ahead of the second Test against France at Kings Park.

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Damian de Allende and Lionel Mapoe were ruled out of the first Test due to niggles. Mapoe, however, took some part in the training sessions held in Pretoria.

It will be interesting to see what Coetzee does if Kriel is deemed unfit to play. Frans Steyn and Jan Serfontein finished the game for the Boks in the midfield this past Saturday. Steyn offers the Boks strong defensive and kicking options from the No 12 position, while Serfontein played some of his best Test rugby at No 13 in the 2014 season.

The alternative is to bring De Allende and Mapoe straight back into the side. This combination battled in 2016 on both attack and defence, though. De Allende hasn’t played much rugby in 2017. Mapoe wasn’t picked in the initial Bok squad, and only received an opportunity after form No 13 Lukhanyo Am sustained a serious cheekbone injury.

Coetzee may be reluctant to make too many changes to his back division. He might argue that this combination needs to be backed as much as possible so that it can settle into the new structures and build some experience and momentum.

Yet what was plain to see at Loftus Versfeld, was that the Bok backline wanted for experience and communication, especially on defence and when fielding the high ball. This was to be expected, with four of the seven backline starters making their Test debuts.

The Boks got away with it in the first Test. France went into that game without a host of star players who were being rested in the wake of the Top 14 final.

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The elevation of Steyn to the starting lineup may boost the Boks’ cause in this respect. The big question is how Coetzee goes about bolstering the back three. Experienced wingers and fullbacks are in short supply in this particular squad. Dillyn Leyds came off the bench this past Saturday to make his Test debut.

Perhaps it’s time for Coetzee to look outside the group. Ruan Combrinck is currently with the SA A side preparing for a clash against the French Barbarians this Friday.

Both the Boks and the SA A side are based in Durban this week. While Combrinck may not boast a whole lot more experience than the likes of Raymond Rhule, Courtnall Skosan and Leyds, he does have the skill-set – and the bulk – to meet the France challenge at Kings Park.

When the squad was announced, it was a surprise to see JP Pietersen’s name omitted. As witnessed in games played for Leicester this past season, the powerfully built winger still has more to give.

With options severely limited at the Boks at present, Pietersen could well prove a valuable asset to the team with his experience, physicality and skill under the high ball.

Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images

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