The Springboks’ lack of options on the wing could be exposed as a result of injuries to Bryan Habana and Jesse Kriel, and the unavailability of Lwazi Mvovo, writes CRAIG LEWIS in Durban.
Ill-timed injuries have disrupted the Boks’ planning and buildup to this Saturday’s all-important final Rugby Championship Test against the All Blacks.
Rudy Paige, who acquitted himself well in his first Test start against the Wallabies last Saturday, has already been ruled out of action, which is set to force the Boks into a third change to their halfback pairing in as many matches.
Although Piet van Zyl has been called into the squad as a specialist replacement, he will provide only emergency backup, with Faf de Klerk and Francois Hougaard set to serve as the Boks’ two scrumhalf options in the match 23.
One selection the Boks could have considered is to shift Hougaard from wing to No 9, as he did when Paige left the Loftus field with a concussion on Saturday, but this has been compromised by the injury to Habana.
The Bok stalwart – who is the only specialist wing in the squad – picked up a thigh injury in Saturday’s Test against the Wallabies and has not been able to fully train this week.
Should Habana fail to recover in time, the Boks would have little option but to retain Hougaard on the left wing, and slot fullback Willie le Roux in on the right wing.
In such a scenario, Jesse Kriel would have been the likely player to provide cover on the wing, but he has been battling with a groin injury and appears doubtful to recover in time for Saturday’s Test.
Ultimately, with doubts lingering over the fitness over both Habana and Kriel at the start of the week, the easiest option for the Boks would have been to recall Durban-based Mvovo into the squad. Yet, complicating matters further has been the fact that the specialist wing is unavailable after recently undergoing an emergency appendix operation.
The other damning fact is that there are simply no other South African-based specialist wingers who appear to be clear-cut candidates ready to take the step up into the Bok system. The next in line would probably have been Lions star Courtnall Skosan, but he is sidelined with a groin injury.
It also raises the question as to why JP Pietersen has continued to be regarded as surplus to requirements, particularly for the home leg of the Rugby Championship.
The long and short of it is that the Boks will in all likelihood need to opt for the least disruptive move by slotting De Klerk straight back in at No 9, with Hougaard retaining his place on the wing, while continuing to provide scrumhalf cover.
Should Kriel fail to recover from injury, Damian de Allende is then likely to start at inside centre, with Juan de Jongh shifting to 13, while if Habana is unable to take up his starting place, Le Roux would wing it for the Boks.
In that far from ideal scenario, outside centre Lionel Mapoe would need to provide cover on the wing, with players continuing to have to fulfil unconventional roles out of position.
On Tuesday, Boks backline coach Mzwandile Stick conceded that they could be left in somewhat of a pickle if both Habana and Kriel are ruled out.
‘Our biggest downfall this week has been the fact that Lwazi is unavailable. We released him with the hope that he could get game time for the Sharks, and now if Bryan or Jesse aren’t cleared, we may have a bit of a challenge where we have to move Willie to the wing.
‘We have a plan in place, but it would mean Willie may have to do a job there, with Lionel providing cover.’
Last Saturday, the Boks’ decision to opt for a six-two forwards-to-backs split on the bench was also exposed by the unforeseen backline injuries, which left flanker Jaco Kriel filling in on the left wing for the better part of the last half an hour.
Yet, by all accounts, the Boks seem set to persist with this replacements configuration on Saturday.
‘We have a 6-2 plan, and that plan is about impact off the bench,’ Coetzee commented earlier this week. ‘We want to bring impact to the game and they [the bench] have done that, so I’m really happy with the replacements.’
Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images