Opportunity knocks for Du Preez

Flanker Jean-Luc du Preez must be the favourite to start at No 7 now that Oupa Mohoje has been ruled out of the third Test due to concussion, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.

Du Preez was initially selected in the SA A squad. He only received a call-up to the Springbok group when Duane Vermeulen picked up an injury (playing for Toulon in the Top 14 final) ahead of the first game of the series against France.

The concerns over Jaco Kriel’s fitness saw Du Preez earning selection on the Bok bench for the first two Tests against France. To say that Du Preez has made his limited opportunities with the Boks count, is an understatement.

Du Preez made a telling impact on defence in the Test at Loftus Versfeld. His physicality and determination to secure the ball at the breakdown was again apparent in the second clash at Kings Park.

Du Preez replaced Mohoje early in the first half this past Saturday. After the game, Bok coach Allister Coetzee confirmed that Mohoje had sustained a concussion and that he would not be available for the third Test at Ellis Park.

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Not that Mohoje’s absence hurt the Boks’ effort at the breakdowns and collisions. Du Preez proved to be one of the Boks’ best players at Kings Park, and certainly complemented the likes of Siya Kolisi and Warren Whiteley in the back row.

Coetzee’s hand may be forced this week. And yet a back row of Kolisi, Du Preez and Whiteley is worth investing in ahead of the Rugby Championship, at least until Vermeulen recovers to join the squad.

The Bok coach may be reluctant to make too many changes this week. While there is nothing to play for in the context of the series against France – the Boks have already taken an unassailable 2-0 lead – Coetzee may want to strengthen his position as coach with a 3-0 thrashing of the tourists.

That scoreline wouldn't erase a 2016 season that witnessed eight defeats in 12 Tests, but it would be viewed as an encouraging start.

The third Test against France is important for another reason. Coetzee came into this series with several new combinations and opted to give a host of new players starting opportunities. While he will want to win the Test at Ellis Park, he will also want to strengthen the team in several areas with a view to the Rugby Championship.

Jesse Kriel sustained a concussion in the first Test against France and was unavailable for the second. The Bok medical team should confirm later today whether the outside centre is available for the final clash against Les Bleus on Saturday.

Coetzee has maintained over the course of this series that he views Serfontein as a specialist No 12 and that the player is part of his long-term plans. The Bok coach reiterated this point on Saturday evening when he revealed that Serfontein (28 caps) will receive an opportunity to add to his tally in the coming Rugby Championship.

Serfontein is leaving the Bulls to play in France at the conclusion of the Super Rugby conference stage. Yet he will only be considered an ‘overseas player’ from October onwards. By then, Coetzee hopes that Serfontein will have accumulated the necessary number of caps (30) to be considered for Bok selection, as per the new SA Rugby overseas player policy.

That said, Coetzee didn’t bring Frans Steyn back from Europe – or Francois Hougaard for that matter – just to sit on the bench. Steyn is a special player and has proved as much during his time with the Boks, Sharks, and with Racing 92 and Montpellier in France over the past decade.

If Steyn is going to be part of the squad in the 2017 Rugby Championship, and indeed in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, then he needs to be backed in a starting capacity sooner rather than later. Coetzee has to find a space for Steyn in the team. Now that the series is won, he may even be tempted to experiment.

A Steyn-Serfontein midfield combination would offer the Boks a host of attacking and kicking options. Serfontein had an outstanding game against France this past Saturday. While he is especially good at the breakdown from the No 12 position, he also has the ability to organise and marshal the defence.

The Boks are in dire need of a No 13 with those qualities. The fact remains that neither Kriel nor Lionel Mapoe – who wasn’t selected in the initial Bok squad – are in that mould. No centre has come close to filling the defensive void left by Jaque Fourie in 2013.

The Bok back-three has been described as a work in progress, but surely it’s a matter of when rather than if Coetzee makes changes in this department. The Boks can’t go into a match against the Wallabies or the All Blacks with three Test rookies at 11,14 and 15. There needs to be a balance between youth and experience, and a balance between running and kicking, in those positions.

Coetzee’s squad selections suggest that the coach doesn’t believe there are too many other options. Unless Kriel, or even Steyn, is pushed to fullback, or players like JP Pietersen and Willie le Roux are recalled from Europe in the coming months, the Boks could well go into the Rugby Championship with diminutive and inexperienced wings and fullbacks.

Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images

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Jon Cardinelli