Western Province will need to consider their midfield combination following their disappointing loss to the Vodacom Bulls at Newlands, writes DYLAN JACK.
Province started their 2020 Currie Cup campaign with a 22-20 loss to a Bulls side that was forced to play with 14 men for most of the second half on Saturday evening. The defeat left Province in third place, seven points off the top of the table, with their dream of giving Newlands a fitting sendoff with a home final under threat.
However, it is the nature of Saturday’s defeat which will have John Dobson and his Province coaching staff scratching their heads as to how they lost this one, despite dominating territory and possession for large parts of the first half and having a couple of opportunities to put the game to bed in the second period.
At times in the first half, Province were very lateral on attack and lacked that same incisive edge, which saw them finish their Super Rugby Unlocked campaign (as the Stormers) with comfortable wins over Griquas and the Cheetahs.
It is telling that the only time that the Cape side looked consistently threatening with ball in hand was when Ruhan Nel was brought off the bench in the 54th minute, shortly after the Bulls lost Jacques van Rooyen to a red card. Nel provided the try assist to Ernst van Rhyn for what looked like the winning score, before the Bulls snatched the match with a couple of minutes to go.
It is quite clear that the combination between Rikus Pretorius and Dan du Plessis is not working. This is not to say that either Pretorius or Du Plessis are bad players. On the contrary, both can give Province the go-forward and momentum the team needs when given opportunities with ball-in-hand.
However, the issue is that both players fit into the typical mould of an inside centre. As an example, there was a period in the first half of Saturday’s match where Province were camped in the Bulls’ 22. Province had done the hard work of sucking their Bulls defenders into the breakdown with a number of carries from their forwards and there were a couple of opportunities to spread the ball and exploit the space out wide.
Unfortunately, at that stage, both Pretorius and Du Plessis had got drawn into the breakdown battle themselves, leaving nobody to link the two playmakers – Damian Willemse and Warrick Gelant – with the wings.
Fortunately, the solution for Province is a relatively simple one. Instead of playing Pretorius and Du Plessis as a combination, consider them both as inside centres and rotate them. Du Plessis’ strengths are best suited at inside centre and having him competing with Pretorius for a place in the starting lineup will only cause both players to lift their game.
Nel needs to be the senior player in the midfield, effectively taking the leadership in this department from Jamie Roberts, whose guidance is so clearly missed in this team. The former Blitzboks player is a far more natural outside centre than either Pretorius or Dan du Plessis and his impact on Saturday’s match was not surprising in the least.
If Province want to go for an alternative solution, they could always turn to a completely new combination and start Michal Haznar at inside centre alongside Nel. The two were paired together during Province’s successful 2017 Provincial Rugby Challenge campaign and it would be interesting to see if it would work at a higher level.
Haznar has certainly shown that he can be a force in midfield during his stint with Griquas and will need an opportunity some time in the campaign.
However, with the challenge of the Lions at Ellis Park looming on the horizon, Western Province have very little time to experiment. The Lions boast their own star quality midfield, with Burger Odendaal settling in well after his move from the Bulls, while Wandisile Simelane has found his form after a tricky start to the year.
What is for certain is that a change in this department is needed and Province cannot afford to leave Nel on the bench again.
Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images