The Springboks have lost the one player they could not afford to lose on the eve of the Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI.
In the lead-up to the Test series against Ireland, there was a lot of talk about the make-up of the Springbok back row. Some felt that the Lions loose forwards, Jaco Kriel and Warren Whiteley in particular, deserved an opportunity to start based on their showings in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament.
A few reporters even went as far as to put this to the Bok coaching staff. They were genuinely surprised to hear that Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen – star performers for the Boks in recent years and among the most consistent performers in the European club leagues in 2016 – were being spoken about as key cogs in the South African machine.
Bok attack coach Johann van Graan, who also served as the national side’s forwards coach between 2012 and 2015, left nothing to the imagination when he was asked to explain Vermeulen’s ongoing inclusion.
‘Duane has been the heart and soul of this team for the better part of four years,’ Van Graan said. When I spoke to Van Graan later, he highlighted Vermeulen’s contribution on defence, both as a leader and as an individual, as crucial to the team cause.
Two months on, and that heart has been ripped out. Last Friday, Vermeulen sustained a serious knee injury while on duty for his club, Toulon. The talismanic No 8 will not feature in the coming Rugby Championship. It’s fair to say that his absence will leave the Boks wanting in areas like the collisions and breakdowns.
Coach Allister Coetzee went into this tournament knowing that flankers Siya Kolisi and Schalk Burger were unavailable. He knew that most of his loose forwards were inexperienced and more suited to running the ball than winning a war in the trenches.
Now the Boks have lost the one player they could not afford to lose on the eve of the Rugby Championship.
Whiteley and Vermeulen are very different players. Indeed, a few days before Vermeulen sustained his injury, there was a rumour doing the rounds about a proposed back-row shakeup at the Boks. With Kolisi and Burger unavailable, Vermeulen was being spoken about as a blindside flank option, and Whiteley as the starting No 8. It was hoped that Vermeulen would bring some aggression to that ball-carrying position while still contributing at the breakdowns and as the team’s defensive leader.
Vermeulen’s injury-enforced absence means that this idea will be shelved. The Boks will be forced to battle on in the Rugby Championship without a specialist blindside, and with a back row that lacks the necessary balance to dominate the collisions and breakdowns – areas that determine the flow and pace of a contest and shape the result.
Coetzee appears reluctant to move Pieter-Steph du Toit to No 7 at this point. Opposing coaches continue to talk up the gifted young forward. While they recognise his value as a lineout manager and contester, they are especially impressed with his ball-in-hand contributions.
Coetzee, however, does not want to break up the second-row combination of Du Toit and Eben Etzebeth that has proved so successful – at least as far as contesting is concerned – for the Stormers in 2016.
And yet, one can’t help but notice that the Boks are blessed with an abundance of quality locks at the moment. One of these locks, Lood de Jager, won the 2015 SA Rugby Player of the Year award.
Perhaps the presence of Etzebeth, De Jager and Du Toit in the starting pack will provide the Boks with the necessary physicality and balance they require.
It won’t fill the leadership void, though. They say you don’t know what you've got until it’s gone, and Vermeulen should become conspicuous by his absence when the Boks take on the likes of Australia and New Zealand later in the tournament.
Indeed, the Boks may be hard-pressed to fill that enforcer role in the lead-up to the Tests against Argentina, a side that lives for the breakdown battle and has been known to rattle the less experienced teams.
A tough task for a green Bok side just got a whole lot tougher.
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