Rugby Championship

Bok loosies: Final surrender of our ‘crown’?

2017-10-06 14:03
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Perhaps my fears will prove spectacularly unfounded.

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That’s happened, agreeably, to all of us who worship sport many times before, hasn’t it?

But even the All Blacks may well be more than a little bemused, or downright dumbfounded, by the composition of the Springbok loose trio for Saturday’s Rugby Championship Test at Newlands.

If there is one area where, traditionally, the Boks have either ensured comfortable parity, or just as often actual mastery, in the bilateral conflict it has been right there.

Until pretty recently, most rugby-knowledgeable New Zealanders - so most New Zealanders by definition, too - were in awe of South Africa’s near-constant ability to be a “loose forward factory”, churning out good ones as if on a merciless production line in a Chinese industrial zone.

Certainly when the Boks beat the All Blacks the last time at Newlands, 22-16 in a crackerjack Test match in August 2005, our country was still firmly in the habit of fielding a loose trio, and the individuals within them, who were the envy of almost all countries including their direct foes that day.

South Africa dominating that department in an epic, hard-as-nails scrap, through the yeoman efforts - especially physically - of 22-year-old open-side tyro Schalk Burger and his key aides (Juan Smith was the designated blind-sider, and Big Joe van Niekerk stationed at No 8), went a long way to explaining the probably fitting outcome.

The demonic battle between quite fearless, flowing-haired Burger and the revered wrecking-ball in the NZ ranks, Jerry Collins - sadly killed in a car crash in France two years ago - was one of the most engrossing features of the Test, which also featured a certain Richie McCaw in the loosie tussle, then 24 and not too far off his amazing prime.

But a swelling, worrying feature of Allister Coetzee’s now nearly two-year tenure as Bok coach has been just how unstable the loose forward positions, once such a faithful area of excellence, have suddenly become.

He seems to fiddle almost willy-nilly with the trio of berths, taking to rare and controversial extremes the belief that modern loosies merely have “numbers on their backs” and should, in a nutshell, really be capable of weaving between all three specific positions at once.

That’s all well and good but it’s interesting, all the same, that there are no such signs of the enduringly planet-leading New Zealanders and their own mastermind, Steve Hansen, demonstrating such scant respect for the specific qualities that traditionally define a six, seven and eight.

While naturally bearing in mind that they number their flankers the “other” way around to what we do, it remains abundantly clear when you peruse the current All Black loose trio who is in charge of each slot.

Liam Squire is a very traditional (1.96m, 113kg) blind-sider in tale-of-the-tape terms, and of all of his half-dozen starts thus far have been in that capacity, whilst Sam Cane, earning his 49th cap at Newlands, similarly ticks all the expected boxes as the open-side scavenger and speedy link-man with his reasonably low centre of gravity and more economical 102kg weight.

Then there is a certain Kieran Read, the 105-appearance captain and quite feasibly supreme occupant of the No 8 role - remember, widely acknowledges as a particularly specialist, “spine” position in a rugby team - in the world.

He will retire a legend, whatever happens from here on in as he moves (at some three weeks shy of 32) into the twilight phase of his illustrious career.

How bewildered must Read feel, do you think, about the respective Springbok direct rivals he has faced (Uzair Cassiem, in the Albany rout) or is about to square up to (Francois Louw) in 2017?

This, after all, is a player who has more often “grown up”, as it were, on a diet of feisty, riveting international duels with Duane Vermeulen.

Cassiem was no more than workmanlike, to put it quite diplomatically, as he did the No 8 business for his country in the 0-57 match - perhaps no more than should have been expected, in fairness, of a side-of-the-scrum man by trade, temporarily plugging a hole elsewhere.

And now the undisputed maestro Read gets to tussle with Louw ... at least an altogether more experienced and widely-travelled loosie, but also at very obvious risk of looking all too fish out of water at Newlands through no special fault of his own.

It will be the Bath-based flanker’s 54th Test, but first dedicated appearance as eighth-man.

If this was a fill-in job against Tonga or Romania, you might feel more confident in the far from unintelligent player’s ability to perform it satisfactorily or even very well, but this is the All Blacks, plus their veritable colossus of that specific position.

Coupled with the decision to resort to Pieter-Steph du Toit’s versatility by planting him back at blind-side flank (he is yet to win a Test in that berth as a starter) rather than appreciably more familiar No 5 lock, Coetzee is only playing with more fire at a time when sentiment around the national side is smouldering a little ominously again anyway.

Somehow you suspect that risking one player out of his more regular habitat in a trio can just about work out OK; by cranking that to two, you only shift appreciably closer to the possibility of it bombing really badly, the awkward structural imbalance quickly descending into near-chaos.

But I think it also raises the uncomfortable question: injuries and other circumstances apart, isn’t this only a sad statement of how South Africa’s loose-forward abundance has either melted away or, possibly more pertinently, is simply being disturbingly disrespected?

By hook or crook, or a good dollop of both, here’s hoping this most glaringly makeshift of Springbok loose trios cuts it at Newlands.

Any bullish bets on it?

I’m afraid my money stays squeezed between mock leather.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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