Coetzee’s juggling act begins

Allister Coetzee’s player management skills will be put to the test like never before in the Springboks’ Rugby Championship campaign, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Consider the ‘problem’ that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen faces at present. The great Dan Carter retired from Test rugby at the end of 2015, and yet, only a few months later, players of the quality of Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga are jousting for that No 10 shirt.

Hansen is spoiled for choice across the board. An injury to a frontline All Blacks player should not compromise New Zealand’s 2016 Rugby Championship campaign.

The problems facing Australia, Argentina and South Africa are more serious. The franchises from these countries – bar the Lions – did not impress in the recent Super Rugby tournament.

It’s fair to say that none of these nations boast the same depth as New Zealand, and that their respective campaigns will be compromised when injuries strike down key players in the Rugby Championship tournament.

The make-up of the Springbok squad has been fiercely debated since SA Rugby unveiled the 31-man group on Saturday afternoon. Many fans are adamant in their belief that Player X should start ahead of Player Y.

The reality of rugby in the professional era is that extended squad, rather than 15-man teams, win tournaments of this length and intensity. It's not so much a choice between Players X and Y as a drive to ensure you have X, Y and Z in each position, and that all three have the necessary experience and ability to excel in high-pressure conditions.

Coetzee could do with a few more selection headaches. The Bok coach will welcome the following debates: Julian Redelinghuys or Vincent Koch at tighthead prop, Pieter-Steph du Toit or Lood de Jager at No 5 lock, Francois Louw or Jaco Kriel at openside flank, and Duane Vermeulen or Warren Whiteley at No 8.

Indeed, if Coetzee were to consider all his options, home and abroad, there would be a debate of whether Bismarck du Plessis or Adriaan Strauss adds more value as a starting hooker. Already there appears to be more depth in this position now that an exciting young prospect in Malcolm Marx has been added to the squad.

The problem for South Africa at this point is that there aren’t enough of these debates. Injuries to key players, the retirement of several veterans after the 2015 World Cup, and a general drop in standards mean the options in some of the key positions are limited.

The halfback situation has been exacerbated by Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie's injuries. Not many are going to argue with Coetzee selecting Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies to start in the Rugby Championship, but the lack of depth may be exposed if one of these Lions players goes down in the next few weeks.

Rudy Paige, De Klerk’s understudy in the recent Test series against Ireland, has battled to find form at the Bulls this season. Morné Steyn is a very different No 10 to Jantjies, and while Goosen first impressed as a young flyhalf for the Cheetahs and the Boks in 2012, he has enjoyed more success as an outside back for Racing 92 in subsequent seasons.

This presents Coetzee with a significant management challenge. The Boks need to start their campaign well if they are to have any chance of finishing in the top half of the Rugby Championship standings. Coetzee is likely to field his best available team in those two must-win clashes against Argentina.

At the same time, Coetzee should be mindful of the fact that the tournament will increase in difficulty as the weeks pass. Following the two Tests against Argentina (ranked No 9 in the world), the Boks will take on Australia (No 4) and then New Zealand (No 1). Coetzee will be hoping that frontline players in positions like scrumhalf, flyhalf, inside centre, and even fullback, are available for the more demanding contests against the Australasians.

Then there’s the matter of meeting SA Rugby’s transformation requirements. Despite the relative lack of progress by most of the South African franchises in the recent Super Rugby tournament, Coetzee will be expected to field more players of colour in the Rugby Championship.

The Bok coach certainly has his work cut out for him over the next two months.

Photo: Michael Sheehan/Gallo Images

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