Duane key to Bok success

Duane Vermeulen remains the Springboks’ best captaincy candidate and option at No 8, writes JON CARDINELLI.

On 12 April, newly appointed national coach Allister Coetzee said that he will consider players based at overseas clubs for Springbok selection. At the time, Coetzee danced around the issue of the captaincy, or more specifically whether the candidate needed to be based in South Africa or not. What Coetzee made clear was that he wanted the best leader and player for the job.

'I will have to see if that candidate fits into what I want to achieve with this team,’ Coetzee said. ‘The captain is instrumental to winning Test matches.’

Since that press conference, Coetzee has travelled extensively to meet with coaches and players at the relevant unions. He’s been in touch with elite players plying their trade abroad.

By now, he should know who is best suited to the task. On 28 May, SA Rugby will reveal the names of Coetzee’s 54-man training squad. This group will be split into an extended Test squad and a 23-man SA A side further down the line.

Who Coetzee favours as skipper has been a point of debate since the end of the 2015 World Cup. Three Bok captains in Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez retired from international rugby after that tournament. A fourth in Schalk Burger told the media after the World Cup semi-final against the All Blacks that he was '99% certain’ that his international days were behind him.

Of course, there is another senior player who was tipped for the position as far back as 2014. On the eve of the 2014 Rugby Championship, Meyer told SA Rugby magazine that Duane Vermeulen had all the qualities to be a successful Bok captain. Meyer would have given Vermeulen an opportunity to lead the team in the 2015 Rugby Championship (when De Villiers and then Matfield were ruled out with injury) if the No 8 wasn’t battling with a serious neck ailment.

A year on, and Vermeulen is fit and playing some great rugby for French club Toulon. With a host of senior Boks having retired, the 29-year-old appears to be the obvious choice to lead the national side in 2016, and possibly in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.

Those fixated on Super Rugby might argue that there are better candidates within South Africa. Lions captain Warren Whiteley has been mentioned in the conversation, as has Bulls skipper Adriaan Strauss. However, one has to remember that when all overseas options are considered, Whiteley and Strauss may battle to make the Boks’ starting lineup. And as history shows us, the Bok coach is asking for trouble when he picks a captain who is not the best in his position.

Bath-based Francois Louw has been listed as a strong candidate. Like Vermeulen, Louw has been part of the Boks’ senior core since late 2012. And like Vermeulen, the openside flank is a strong leader who still commands a place in the starting side. What may count against Louw is the fact that he will turn 31 during the Test series against Ireland, and will be 34 at the next World Cup.

Nevertheless, Louw may still have a key role to play alongside Vermeulen and the other senior players. The Boks shouldn’t want for experience if forwards like Strauss, Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Eben Etzebeth are all retained.

The back division may be a different story. Du Preez and De Villiers are no longer in the mix while Bryan Habana will be unavailable for the Test series against Ireland due to his Springbok Sevens commitments. JP Pietersen and Willie le Roux may be the senior statesmen for the Bok backline in the coming series, but some experience will also be needed in the halfback group.

While Faf de Klerk deserves a chance at No 9, a veteran in Ruan Pienaar, who knows the Ireland players intimately after spending close on six years in Ulster, could be valuable in the squad setup. One also has to remember that Du Preez has retired, Cobus Reinach has been ruled out for the rest of the season due to injury, and Francois Hougaard is also committed to the Blitzboks.

Nic Groom is being talked about as a bolter for the series against Ireland, even though his Super Rugby form has been erratic (the recent performance against the Bulls was fraught with poor decision-making and execution). While Pienaar is a less flashy player, he will provide more stability in the short term.

Elton Jantjies and Pat Lambie should serve as the Boks' flyhalf options over the course of the Test series. Lambie has found form since returning from injury in recent weeks, and will push Jantjies hard for a starting spot. This competition within the squad could, however, bring the best out of the Lions pivot.

Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP Photo

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Jon Cardinelli