The form of the European-based South African loose forwards could provide a potential solution to Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber’s selection quandary, writes DYLAN JACK.
Nienaber’s major concern going into the Rugby Championship will revolve around the match readiness of his South African-based players, who have not played a single minute of competitive rugby since mid-March.
Of course, the very future of the Championship will be made evident over the next couple of days, with Sanzaar officials to meet on Thursday to thrash out a workable plan for the tournament or else cancel it entirely for 2020.
If the tournament does go ahead as planned in either New Zealand or Australia, Nienaber would be keen to see a domestic tournament get under way as soon as possible, with the Boks having to depart for the Championship by 18 October at the latest to comply with quarantine regulations.
A potential solution to the match-readiness problem lies in selecting a Bok squad made up mostly of European-based players, as the major northern-hemisphere competitions (PRO14, Premiership and French Top 14) are all currently under way. There is still a financial hurdle to overcome in flying the various players from their respective countries to Australasia.
However, this is clearly something that both Nienaber and SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus have considered, with Sale Sharks boss Steve Diamond admitting last week that he will be without most of his South African players for the start of the next Premiership season as they have to attend a Springbok camp.
If the Springboks are to go down this route, then Nienaber can rest easy knowing in the loose-forward department, at least, he will have plenty of options to consider.
There has already been quite a bit written about Marcell Coetzee over the past PRO14 season. Coetzee has possibly been in the form of his career in playing an influential role to help Ulster progress to the PRO14 final. Notably, the 29-year-old has bulked up over the past few months, possibly to aid his influence at No 8, where he has played most of his rugby for Ulster.
Coetzee would be worth calling up regardless of the situation in South Africa, but with incumbent No 8 Duane Vermeulen lacking minutes, he could play a bigger role for the Boks, if southern-hemisphere Test rugby is held this year.
Diamond already let the cat out of the bag when he revealed that the Du Preez twins – Jean-Luc and Daniel – would be among the South African Sale Sharks players attending a Springbok training camp.
Both players have been superb in their first full season in the Premiership. Daniel du Preez would provide another option at No 8, where he has exclusively played for Sale. He currently leads the Premiership stats in terms of successful offloads (26), while his carrying ability is evident in that he has beaten 54 defenders, two less than teammate and centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Jean-Luc, meanwhile, has adapted effectively to a new role at lock, but his best position at Test level could still be at blindside flank. Much like his brother, he has an uncanny ability to get the ball through the tackle, with 11 offloads so far this season. Jean-Luc has also been strong on defence, making 146 tackles with a 94% success rate, while he has also become more disciplined, conceding just five penalties to date.
The Top 14 has only just got started over the past weekend, but Rynhardt Elstadt entered the season strongly, scoring a brace as a 13-man Toulouse lost their opening fixture. Given that Elstadt was a part of the Springboks’ World Cup preparations and could provide capable backup for the injured Pieter-Steph du Toit, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him called up.
As far as potential bolters go, Nienaber can look to the Premiership-leading Exeter Chiefs, who have been boosted by the form of new signings Jacques Vermeulen and Jannes Kirsten. I have already written that Vermeulen has taken his game to next level with the Chiefs and is finally beginning to realise his potential.
Kirsten, who was somewhat unheralded at the Vodacom Bulls, has also been a highly influential player and offers a utility option with his ability to double at lock.
Of course, there is still a plethora of local options for Nienaber to choose from. Sikhumbuzo Notshe was the standout loose forward before the Super Rugby season was halted, finding career-best form in his first season with the Sharks after moving to Durban from the Stormers.
Vermeulen, Arno Botha and Nizaam Carr have all returned to the country with the Bulls, while Jaco Coetzee, James Venter and Junior Pokomela were all putting their hands up for a first-time role with the Springboks.
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