Cape Town - And then there was one ...
South Africa are down to just a solitary member of their pretty customary first-choice loose trio for the Castle Rugby Championship Test against Australia at Newlands on Saturday week, in the shape of blisteringly in-form No 8 Duane Vermeulen.
The remainder of the unit which coach Heyneke Meyer has traditionally placed his most consistent trust in – Francois Louw and Willem Alberts - have both succumbed to the injury hoodoo at a time of year when wear and tear tends to become an increasing problem.
For many international teams, surrendering two thirds of their ideal loose forward combination would be a snag of some magnitude, but South Africa traditionally sports good depth in the area and the situation is relatively unaltered in 2014.
The announcement on Wednesday that Schalk Burger has been summoned back from his Japanese base to beef the squad means Meyer will be picking his starting trio to tackle the Wallabies from a five-strong cupboard of Vermeulen, Marcell Coetzee, Warren Whiteley, Oupa Mohoje and now Burger.
Several permutations within that group can probably be termed attractive, and the only certainty appears to be that Vermeulen and Coetzee (incumbents, as they started and impressed in the nail-biting loss to New Zealand in Wellington) will again be involved in the XV at Newlands.
A personal view is the Boks could do a whole lot worse than fast-track the experienced Burger, who would be playing at a treasured hometown venue that so often brings out the best qualities in him, straight into the mix.
It would leave the side with arguably the most undisturbed feel to the loose trio in “balance” terms, as in the unfortunate absence of Louw it would still give South Africa two flanks renowned for energetic work-rate and an ability to serve both as fetchers and decent ball carriers.
Frankly, you could get Coetzee to wear No 6 and Burger No 7, or do it the other way around without greatly disturbing the equilibrium as both are well familiar with both open- and blindside service.
Against both the Wallabies and All Blacks away - matches which the Boks might easily have won rather than lost by tight margins as they eventually did - they were well served by having two flanks capable of playing to the ball, as they say, and the introduction of the 71-cap Burger would appealingly keep that characteristic.
The 31-year-old Stormers/WP favourite is hardly out of the loop with current Bok systems given his encouraging return involvement with the national side during the June window period.
So Meyer would not warrant being crucified by those ignorant to tactical considerations if he opted to install Burger immediately in his starting line-up.
There is also, of course, a good case for rewarding fleet-footed Lions captain Warren Whiteley with a maiden start after two tastes of Test rugby off the bench in Australasia.
The second one, in Wellington, was by far the more elongated and thus educative appearance as he replaced the crocked Louw on 47 minutes, and did a competent job of ensuring Bok service in the loosie department barely lost its effectiveness.
A problem with any thought of including the pacy Whiteley from the outset against the Wallabies is that he is really most suited to No 8, where Vermeulen is the rightful custodian and gave at least as good as he got last Saturday against Kieran Read, widely regarded as the world’s standout in the slot.
The Boks, in short, would lose a bit of natural shape in the loose trio if Whiteley was drafted in on the side of the scrum, although there is also always the intriguing possibility of the rugged Vermeulen reprising his role as a blindsider where history shows he can be just as effective.
Given his recent mojo as eighthman, however, would it really be a good idea to make such a quirky alteration at this point?
That leaves the similarly vexing matter of where the patient Mohoje stands in all this: is the Cheetahs-based blindsider destined to only grow his unwanted and oft-criticised reputation as a “tackle-bag holder” in the present Bok squad by being leapfrogged in the pecking order yet again by an outsider (if Burger gets the nod)?
But a logical enough explanation for not giving him a first-time start would be that he is hardly a like-for-like replacement for Louw, the designated main Bok fetcher when fit.
Mohoje is a spirited ball-carrier and perhaps his main strength right now is as a particularly budding back-of-the-lineout jumper ... an area where the Boks are strongly enough staffed at present through Messrs Etzebeth,
Matfield and Vermeulen and extra resources are hardly required.
I’ll repeat an earlier assertion: if minimal upheaval is going to be a key consideration, a trio against the Wallabies made up of Coetzee, Burger and Vermeulen seems to make the best sense.
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