Untried combos a massive gamble

Allister Coetzee’s decision to favour form over experience could backfire in spectacular fashion when the Springboks face France at Loftus Versfeld, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The unbelievable omission of World Cup-winner Frans Steyn. The selection of an unbalanced and untried loose trio. Three new caps in the back three.

Coetzee’s selections ahead of the first Test against France –  a crucial, must-win game in the context of the series and in terms of what transpired across the 2016 season – would have left many scratching their heads.

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The Bok coach’s explanation that followed the team announcement in Pretoria? Just bizarre.

The Boks were bullied at the collisions and breakdowns in 2016. The inaccuracy of their kicking game, as well as the failure to negotiate the high-ball challenge cost them dearly on many occasions.

In the buildup to the 2017 Test season, Coetzee himself demanded an improvement. The Boks would never develop their game and score tries until they improved in these areas, he said.

So why has Coetzee selected players of limited physical ability and experience for the first game of the Test season, a game in which the Boks should be making a statement regarding a particular style of play?

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On Thursday, Coetzee acknowledged that the loss of Duane Vermeulen was a significant blow to the Boks’ gainline ambitions. If fit, Vermeulen would have started at blindside flank, if not in the first Test, then certainly in the second and third.

One would have expected Coetzee to replace like for like now that Vermeulen is unavailable. One would have understood the gamble to back rookie Jean-Luc du Preez at No 7, given the youngster’s outstanding performances for the Sharks at the collisions and breakdowns over the past two seasons.

Instead, Coetzee has handed the responsibility to Oupa Mohoje, a strong lineout option, but a weak ball-carrier and defender. Mohoje has been largely ineffective at the gainline since making his Test debut in 2014, and has been far from impressive for the Cheetahs in the 2017 Super Rugby competition.

Mohoje’s selection does not complement those of Warren Whiteley and Siya Kolisi. The Boks will go into a game against France – a game that will be shaped by the war in the trenches – with three loose forwards who excel in space, rather than at the collisions at close quarters. These selections may compromise the Boks on attack and defence.

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That said, the backline as a combination lacks experience and balance. Francois Hougaard and Steyn have been selected on the bench while four uncapped players – three of them Lions – have been backed to start.

Coetzee feels that the Lions combinations in the back division, and the Bulls midfield combination of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel, will serve the Boks well against France. He doesn’t seem to see the problem in fielding two wingers who lack size and physicality, and three Test rookies in the back three. Expect those three players to be targeted with a series of high balls on Saturday.

Steyn hasn’t played a Test since 2012. Yet his record speaks for itself.

Be it at flyhalf, centre, wing or fullback, he made some crucial contributions to South African rugby between 2006 and 2012. His inclusion in the starting lineup for this Saturday's match may have boosted the Boks’ defence and kicking game.

Steyn's selection would have given the Boks that long-range goal-kicking option from the outset. Why keep a player with Steyn's patent match-winning abilities on the bench? Why wait until the second half to deploy that kind of weapon?

Coetzee says that he expects to see some mistakes form the debutants and from the untried combinations on Saturday. Could those mistakes have been avoided with stronger selections in key positions? That is the question many may ask in the aftermath.

Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli