Cape Town – The continued failure of several of the most experienced Springboks to produce suitably impactful performances is doing little to drive the national team forward.
Unpalatable truth be told, the Boks’ Houdini act on Saturday to rescue their Castle Rugby Championship home opener against Argentina – possibly their least taxing fixture of the six on paper – coupled with the All Blacks’ away slaughter of Australia on the same day only underlines rather brightly that the gap between the former “premier two” on the international stage is widening.
Significantly the world champions are already a point superior to South Africa on the table after round one, considering their full-house away dismantling of the Wallabies, and now look confidently to their swift Wellington follow-up meeting on Saturday, whereas the Boks head to the faraway return game against a suitably miffed, no doubt, Pumas outfit.
It’s in Salta (21:40 SA time) and you can almost guarantee that no-nonsense Agustin Creevy and his pals will be keen to add more than a dash of “pepper” to the revenge-seeking occasion on their own turf.
I don’t believe Bok fans should automatically anticipate the occasion with too much dread: Argentina are not invincible, wherever you play them, and some of the current Bok personnel will have fairly clear memories of beating them 26-12 in Buenos Aires last season, only a week after the shock 37-25 reverse at Kings Park.
So they do travel to South America just that bit less burdened by pressure than they did in 2015, straight off finishing a rare last on the Championship table from an abbreviated campaign; the game was a standalone Test to aid RWC 2015 preparations.
But these new-regime Boks remain riddled with uncertainties, both over team composition and quite how they intend to play.
The central problem, I believe – and perhaps not one that has been very broadly recognised yet – stays the inability of the team’s supposedly most street-wise individuals, amidst an otherwise callow and sometimes jittery crew, to inspire through appropriate weight of performances.
If the Boks were to put the Pumas away with a bit of breathing space in Nelspruit, I argued in the lead-up week, a senior tier fronted by the likes of captain Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira, Francois Louw and a returning Bryan Habana would have to lead the charge.
But we simply didn’t get emphatic, noteworthy dynamism from them, with South Africa instead relying more for vigour and thrust on “developing” players Faf de Klerk, Oupa Mohoje, Vincent Koch and a couple of others as they assembled just enough mojo to get over the line at the death.
It leaves head coach Allister Coetzee with a dilemma ahead of Salta: has the time come already for a significant bag-shake, or does he resist a stab toward the panic button in salute of the undoubted, desperate spirit – he can at least boast that he “has the dressing room”, as they say – that came to the fore when the chips were down at Mbombela Stadium?
My own suggestion would be tweaks above tremors in selection terms, at this delicate point, in the quest to find that all-important fifth gear and levels of accuracy and composure not yet evidenced in any of the three Tests against Ireland or the lone Pumas encounter.
There will be at least one enforced alteration to the starting line-up anyway, given the 32nd-minute exit through a hamstring injury on Saturday of tighthead prop Julian Redelinghuys, although the scrumming steel offered by replacement Vincent Koch – more than making up for a harrowing day against these foes in Durban last year – means an obvious immediate solution at No 3 while the Lions anchorman sadly sits out an expected six weeks.
But if there are also to be some alterations based on form considerations, then open-side flank Louw certainly seems as close as anyone else among the misfiring senior personnel to the guillotine.
He remains well below his known, admirable best in the current Test season, struggling to effect turnovers in any significant quantity and being penalty-prone into the bargain.
His physical contribution at rucks and mauls cannot be under-estimated, but there is a rising clamour – understandably so – for speedier, Jo’burg-based marauder Jaco Kriel to earn a maiden start at six after successive, promising appearances off the bench.
Meanwhile the skipper, Strauss, and front-row colleague Mtawarira continue their 2016 tendency to deliver moderate, rather flat-lining personal showings – and some might say that is a generous assessment.
Yet knowing Coetzee’s instinctive reluctance to disturb continuity, he is unlikely to omit these intended hardebaarde from his start-out plans in the hostile landscape that awaits the Boks in Argentina, despite the challenges posed by broader squad members like Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff in their respective positions.
It would be a particularly big call, of course, to ditch his leader, and anyway Strauss has to be handed some credit for his unflappable role in ensuring the Boks didn’t unravel as the heat mounted on them in the Nelspruit game.
Johan Goosen was clearly naïve at times in his debut as a Bok fullback, but showed some good touches as well and it would be unjust and unsettling to the entire team to ditch him after a solitary crack at the role.
If there’s one player from the relative rookie category in the side who might be elbowed out of Saturday’s run-on plans, midfielder Lionel Mapoe seems most at risk, especially given the coach’s long-time partiality to Juan de Jongh and that player’s own familiarity at centre with Stormers franchise-mate Damian de Allende.
Possible Bok team for Salta:
15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Juan de Jongh (or Lionel Mapoe), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Jaco Kriel (or Francois Louw), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
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