Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has missed a trick by picking fullback Andries Coetzee ahead of Warrick Gelant in the starting side, writes JON CARDINELLI in Padua.
The Bok match 23 to play Italy was confirmed on Thursday afternoon. Coetzee has made two changes to the starting XV – both of those forced.
Bongi Mbonambi will start at hooker – for the first time at this level – in place of the injured Malcolm Marx, while Pieter-Steph du Toit will come in for Siya Kolisi, who has returned to South Africa for the birth of his second child.
Clearly Coetzee and the Boks are playing it safe as they look to claim their second win in seven Tests.
The selection of Gelant on the bench is an interesting one, though. The 22-year-old Bulls fullback could win his first Test cap at the Stadio Euganeo on Saturday.
One can understand why Coetzee is so reluctant to start a rookie at this point. The Boks are light on experienced wingers and fullbacks at present.
Andries Coetzee, Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan all made their respective Test debuts this past June. Prior to the game against Ireland in Dublin two weeks ago, none of these players had played a Test in northern hemisphere conditions.
That said, the Bok coach spent most of the press conference in Padua on Thursday extolling Gelant’s virtues and what he will add to the team in terms of attack. One cannot help but feel that an opportunity to give Gelant an extended run – with a view to the 2018 and 2019 seasons – has been missed.
‘Warrick is a wonderful attack-minded player,’ Coetzee said. ‘He’s got great footwork. I’m looking forward to seeing how he goes.
‘He’s been training with us for the past four weeks. To see how he’s developed and slotted in has been unbelievable. He’s got oodles of talent, and it’s just a matter of time before he becomes a great Test player.
‘One thing about Warrick, if there’s a bad kick on him, he makes good decisions. Rain is predicted for Saturday and there may be a lot of kicking.
‘He has the ability to punish any side. That’s what he brings to this team, and hopefully we can get him on to the field to do that. He’s got X factor on the counter-attack and can pop up outside No 9 or 10 in general play. It’s what we need and it will give the attack a bit of a lift.’
What’s more, according to Coetzee, Gelant has been gelling with the likes of Skosan and Leyds this past week.
‘For any first-timer, there’s pressure. All eyes are on him. This kid has got such a calm demeanour, though. He backs his ability.
‘He has players around him who will make a difference. What I picked up at training is that the back-three players have been working really well together. The communication has been great: when to close, when to get back.
‘It gives me confidence. He’s proven himself in a [Bulls] side that maybe didn’t have too much confidence this year in Super Rugby. Hopefully he will bring that same mentality to the game this week.’
The elevation of Mbonambi has resulted in hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle’s promotion to the bench. It still remains to be seen if centre Lukhanyo Am, one of the form South African players in the 2017 Super Rugby tournament, will get an opportunity on this tour.
‘If you have all these arrows in the quiver, somehow you’ve got to see if it fits into the plan and whether you can give them an opportunity,’ Coetzee said of his decision to favour continuity this week in spite of the weak opposition. Italy are currently ranked No 13 in the world and have lost nine of their last 10 games.
‘There are others in the squad looking for that chance, too,’ said the Bok coach. ‘It’s not like Super Rugby, though, where you have a six-month period and you can plan and rotate players. We’ve got three or four Tests and we want to keep the momentum going.
‘We want to build further confidence in the side by getting the results. We want to blood first-timers when there’s momentum. There was a win against France last week, and now we want to get to the next level.
‘It’s a bit easier when Warrick is coming into a group with more confidence. Hopefully it’s the right environment for him to come into, where a player of his ability can play without too much pressure.’
If that is the case, one wonders why Gelant wasn’t backed to start. It will be interesting to see if Coetzee decides to use Gelant or not if the game is still in the balance after the 50th or 60th minute this Saturday.
Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images