Rugby Championship

Allister has ignored Bok danger signs

2017-09-17 21:48
Ruan Combrinck in SA 'A' colours (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The Springbok backline seems most in need of a fairly dramatic shakeup as Allister Coetzee and company gingerly pick up the pieces from their worst defeat in history.

Even after the gruesome 57-0 result in the Rugby Championship against New Zealand in Albany on Saturday, South Africa do - phew, small mercies and all that - still boast the nucleus of a more than just competent pack.

Yes, there were certain bitterly disappointing engine-room aspects to the debacle, like the stubbornly misfiring lineout by the visitors, but you could argue that after several outstanding showings this season by Malcolm Marx, the hooker was entitled to a stinker in throwing-in terms.

You also can’t summarily pin all the blame on the No 2 (Bongi Mbonambi hardly offered greater assuredness from the 58th minute) whenever a lineout goes so pear-shaped; organisation and timing amidst the jumpers didn’t look too flash on the night.

In retrospect, too, wasn’t it short-sighted of the brains trust to relegate arguably the best Bok player on the park against Australia just a week earlier, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, back to the bench?

There is a time-honoured principle in sport that if an individual notably shines, he needs to be “played out” of the team rather than instantly axed, and it just so happened that the often admirable Franco Mostert, restored to the No 5 jersey at QBE Stadium, turned in an unusually oomph-lacking display.

The structure and balance of the loose trio remains a bone of some contention, too, but broadly the Boks still have the general forward arsenal to spiritedly take on most comers.

Dreadfully humiliated and outplayed as the Boks were on Saturday, it would be unrealistic to submit that their world has now been utterly destroyed in 2017: for one thing, the Boks will ensure runners-up spot in the Championship, a statistical improvement on last season, if they bounce back to beat Australia in Bloemfontein on September 30.

Before the sobering game at North Harbour, it could hardly be disputed that a tangible sense of progress was occurring, with Coetzee’s charges unbeaten, up to it, in six outings, and more often than not winning well.

Yet even as the Boks walked their path toward redemption for the all too regular horrors of 2016, “Toetie” unfathomably didn’t seem prepared to take appropriate steps to correct weaknesses in some positions or combos that were becoming increasingly evident.

Where the Springboks have looked so much more lamentably off the pace, both in collective delivery and selection terms, is amidst the backline - and especially in the more “outside” berths where they were near-grotesquely exposed by the All Blacks. That came as no surprise to this writer.

As a unit, the alliance of Andries Coetzee, Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan has perplexingly been left undisturbed throughout the year, despite looking routinely less convincing than any prior Bok back three assembled in the post-isolation period, frankly.

On second viewing of the Albany fiasco, Coetzee, in the last line of defence, had a slightly better outing than I gave him credit for on Saturday, and may cling to his post for a bit longer.

But he hasn’t exactly screamed that he belongs yet, whilst the two wings have been particularly brittle: Rhule was lamentably bad on defence against the All Blacks, being swatted off with contempt all too often by NZ ball-carriers, either large or smaller.

He simply has to go - this should have happened weeks ago – and sadly so does Skosan, who hasn’t come close at the higher level to replicating his Super Rugby sharpness for the Lions.

These two form a critical part of a broad problem of lack of physicality in the Bok back division, something coach Coetzee, with due respect to his more astute strides in other areas this season, seems worryingly blinkered about.

If my appeal sounds like a dinosaur-like one for a bunch of blunt instruments to comprise our backline, it’s emphatically not.

There is room for “little guys” … but for them to thrive, a shrewd balance needs to be struck, with them able to feed off the attention demanded by opponents to more power-based units nearby.

That’s why for every Damian McKenzie in an All Black back three, there is also an explosive powerhouse Rieko Ioane, whilst a reasonably pencil-like wizard named Beauden Barrett at No 10 benefits hugely from having a tall, near-110kg Sonny Bill Williams immediately outside him.

New Zealand royally bossed collisions both at close quarters and in wider areas of QBE Stadium, and it was almost unedifying watching the universally quite diminutive Bok backs clinging like tenacious leeches to various rampaging All Blacks, or simply grateful to get someone to ground at the ankles (even as that only makes off-loading to a supporting runner so much easier).

There’s been excessive, patently unrewarded tolerance with the current Bok wings, and it is pointless for any cynics to mutter “who else is there?” or words to that effect; Rhule and Skosan need to be put out of their underachieving misery, full-stop.

They say that if you never try you’ll never know, so the time has come to look at alternatives.

Even if not all will automatically answer the pressing need for a few more centimetres and kilos, candidates include the Cheetahs (and ex-Kings) prolific try-scorer Makazole Mapimpi and strong-legged 21-year-old S’bu Nkosi of the Sharks.

I suspect it would greatly benefit the Springboks, too, if at least one of their wings was an effective “extra fullback” - several top international sides adhere to this policy - and in that respect decent options include crazily under-valued Ruan Combrinck and the skilful Dillyn Leyds.

The latter offers some much-needed flair for the unexpected on attack - something lacking in the present Bok back division.

Another potentially versatile back-three candidate is the Bulls’ elusive Warrick Gelant; Nick Mallett suggested not long ago that he might perform just as vibrant a job in a wide berth as at his more customary No 15, and I am inclined to agree.

If it is, indeed, finally recognised that a bit more beef is required behind the Bok scrum, then that 109kg stick of dynamite Rohan Janse van Rensburg reminded at an opportune time at the weekend that he is worth drawing back into the midfield stocks; he put up a terrific showing for the Lions in their breathless Currie Cup derby (won 36-33) against the Bulls. 

It also seems a little bizarre that, considering the number of proven, experienced South African names campaigning abroad, a decidedly mediocre Francois Hougaard has been the lone one shown strong faith in for match-day squads by Coetzee recently.

For whatever the reasons, Hougaard has long seemed a shadow of the electric young rugby player of seven or eight years ago, yet still made seven appearances in green and gold this season, including three starts.

Admittedly part of the generosity of his exposure has been down to the stop-start nature of first-choice scrumhalf Ross Cronje’s involvement in the Test campaign due to injury or illness.

Presumably over his stomach virus by then, the latter should be reunited with Lions franchise-mate Elton Jantjies for the Wallabies challenge in just under a fortnight, and there is a good case for saying Rudy Paige should at least leapfrog the erratic Hougaard in the pecking order at scrumhalf for another crack off the bench.

If anyone thinks the incumbent Springbok backline should remain largely undisturbed, then wow, they are in cuckoo land.

Um, you’re not, are you, Allister?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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