Rugby Championship

Boks: Dangerous disregard for form

2016-08-31 13:21
Courtnall Skosan (Gallo)

Cape Town – Already down-in-the-dumps Springbok rugby enthusiasts will take very little comfort out of the minor rearrangement of the squad “deck chairs” for the Australasian leg of the Castle Rugby Championship.

By doing nothing more than reintroduce wing Lwazi Mvovo and utility back Francois Hougaard to the party for the successive away matches against Australia and New Zealand, coach Allister Coetzee is highly unlikely to have inspired mass whoops of approval.

If anything, their presence will only aggravate a quite widely-held perception that form is an unfathomably limited criterion for Bok selection right now.

Between them, Mvovo and Hougaard sport as many as 52 generally intermittent Test appearances, stretching back some six years in the former’s case and seven for the latter.

Both are indisputably decent franchise rugby players and have had their cameos of inspiration at international level … but not a whole lot more than that, really, despite no shortage of opportunities.

Given that Hougaard veers between the scrumhalf berth and versatile possibilities as a wing, he will probably vie with Mvovo for the vacancy out wide created by Ruan Combrinck’s sidelining through injury.

Hougaard, who was injured himself during the Boks’ problematic two legs against Argentina and could not be considered for the squad then, had at least earned some rave reviews for his performances at No 9 for Worcester Warriors in the last English Premiership season.

Once a reasonably impulsive sort of scrumhalf, the now 28-year-old has probably benefited from the key, game-management requirements of playing on heavier northern-climes pitches and could well pressure both Faf de Klerk and Rudy Paige – the incumbent front two candidates -- for fresh Bok duty in the berth.

But whether he should be deemed a more attractive wing option than several more specialised, established ones on the domestic scene is a highly contentious issue … and Mvovo’s palpable poor form of recent times is an even bigger slap in the face for the handful of very credible options left behind.

Let’s remind ourselves: the Boks were unusually exposed for defensive inaccuracy and frailty when the Pumas keenly swung the ball wide at both Nelspruit and Salta.

Yet in a move that quite possibly only aggravates the phenomenon, Mvovo is suddenly a front-liner again for one of the wing berths – it would probably be on the left if he is picked in Brisbane, with Bryan Habana shifting to No 14 – despite defence being easily his weakest rugby suit.

For all his still-electric attributes as a finisher when attacking opportunities allow, the 30-year-old from the Sharks has had two “difficult” (and that’s being kind) high-profile games defensively over the past few weeks.

One was the second Test against Ireland in Johannesburg, where the Irish shrewdly kicked to his corner repeatedly, fully realising his aerial shortcomings, and it became so painful that Mvovo was replaced at halftime by Combrinck, who grabbed his debut-making opportunity with both hands.

But he was again indecisive, at best, when under the cosh in the Sharks’ – admittedly broadly forgettable – 41-0 hammering from the Hurricanes in a Super Rugby quarter-final in late July.

So it is puzzling, to say the least, that Mvovo is deemed some sort of shot-in-the-arm for the embattled Boks at this time of near-crisis.

With Coetzee already under fire for seemingly – and too doggedly? -- favouring reputation over form in several positions (captain Adriaan Strauss, Francois Louw, Tendai Mtawarira and Damian de Allende are among those lamentably labouring for weeks for best sparkle), the way he has restocked his wing cupboard for the trip across the Indian Ocean almost beggars belief.

Perhaps he will shine fitfully once more for South Africa, and surprise some of us even further by finding suitable consistency and excellence, but I am one observer convinced that Mvovo, no spring chicken, should instead have been left behind now for international purposes.

It surprises me a tad that the seasoned, big-unit JP Pietersen, who was offered a “rest” by Coetzee some four weeks back as he omitted him from his first Championship squad, has not been recalled instead, after the benefit of a decent period which allowed for some out-of-competition conditioning in pre-season with Leicester Tigers that the Bok coach felt he needed.

For various reasons, mostly related to overplaying, Pietersen has not always produced his vintage best rugby in recent seasons. But he combines physicality with X-factor when there’s a bee in his bonnet, and would have been a better bet for the taxing immediate Bok tasks ahead if fit for selection.

But what about other fliers on the South African scene?

All of Leolin Zas, Sergeal Petersen, Courtnall Skosan and Travis Ismaiel showed good promise at times in Super Rugby 2016, and were involved to varying degrees when SA ‘A’ played a brace of matches against a more settled, streetwise England Saxons XV.

Admittedly the prolific-scoring Petersen of the Cheetahs is a few days short of return to fitness after a knee problem, whilst another potential bolter in the shape of Sevens gas-man Seabelo Senatla is regrettably unlikely to feature again until the start of 2017, also through injury.

But falling back on Mvovo, in particular? I would be delighted to be shown wide of the mark, but it only seems a regressive Springbok step.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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