Rugby Championship

Should Allister stick more to specialists?

2017-09-20 07:00
Allister Coetzee (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - When some positional “experiments” work out pretty well, it is unwarranted to castigate a coach too severely on that score.

So you have to tread just a little carefully in assessing, overall, the success or otherwise of Springbok coach Allister Coetzee’s liberal use of players in berths outside their most natural habitat during his decidedly up-and-down tenure so far.

There have been more instances than you may realise over the course of his now 19-Test (won nine, lost nine, drawn one) stint at the helm.

The number of times in that period that Coetzee has taken the punt with players required to leave their more regular stations for less familiar positional challenges reaches double figures, by my rough calculation.

Employing players out of position is a complex subject historically, with no truly definitive answers over its wisdom or otherwise; it depends entirely on circumstance and issues like player availability at the time in the specific berth concerned.

Nor is Coetzee -- currently under harsh new public scrutiny following the 57-0 fiasco in New Zealand – the first Bok coach, by any means, to dabble in the policy.

For an example of a much-publicised, audacious and fairly dramatic switching of duties just about paying off, I would cite Mark Andrews’ shift from his customary berth of lock to No 8 for the 1995 World Cup semi-final and final by Kitch Christie.

Andrews famously did a yeoman enough job, en route to the William Webb Ellis Cup - yet he will also insist to this day that he was really a fish out of water, and never again in a 77-cap Test career did he start in the particularly specialist eighth-man berth.

Infamous flop? Look no further than during the ill-fated Bok series against the great British and Irish Lions of 1974, when the extraordinary, desperate decision was made under Johan Claassen’s tenure to deploy Free State loose forward Gerrie Sonnekus at scrumhalf - up against the legendary Gareth Edwards - for the third Test after SA had already been whipped in the first two.

The move, not unexpectedly, flopped as the Lions won 26-9 to secure the four-Test series; their only “setback” on the entire tour was drawing the final Test in Johannesburg for a 3-0 overall triumph.

My own, very general inclination is to slightly frown on the practice as just too much of a shot in the dark; something that hints at desperation or, by extension, an all too apparent lack of respect for or confidence in men who make a routine living out of the position in question.

You can’t just be “passable” in a reasonably alien role, and there is also a case for saying that Test rugby isn’t the most appropriate place to experiment – not to mention allow due time for acclimatisation -- with non-specialists in a particular jersey.

Here are 11 instances I can think of, since Coetzee took charge in 2016, of players being deployed by him in slots outside of the areas they had previously played the majority of their first-class or Test rugby in, with a suggested verdict of whether they have succeeded or failed.

Although a subjective exercise, the trend seems to indicate that “out of position” mostly hasn’t paid dividends in Coetzee’s reign thus far ...

SUCCESSES:

Siya Kolisi at six flank

A bit of personal bias here: I was delighted when Coetzee shifted Kolisi (more used to policing the blind-side both for the Stormers and in prior Test activity) to the open-side role this season, even as a certain degree of flexibility still takes place on the park. Kolisi falls, physically, somewhere between a six and a seven, and I have long felt that playing to the ball regularly will bring out the best in him at international level – he has taken his game to outstanding new levels in most Tests during 2017. 

Jaco Kriel at seven flank

Especially given his admirable speed and skilful linking, Kriel is almost always the open-sider for his Super Rugby outfit the Lions. Nor does his moderate, less-than-100kg frame make him a traditional, powerhouse blind-sider. But (again, acknowledging allowance made for mid-match versatility in the current Bok loose trio) up to his unfortunate season-ending injury, Kriel had largely cut the mustard on his “wrong” side, still roaming with aplomb but also putting in very firm hits and using good leg-drive at close quarters. It’s questionable whether he will remain a No 7 in the long-term, but for several Tests he did fare admirably there.   

Jean-Luc du Preez at eighth-man

Admittedly this was a once-off, emergency deployment: it came when captain and orthodox No 8 Warren Whiteley was a late pull-out from the final Test against France in Johannesburg back in June. Big unit Du Preez was hastily shifted from the intended seven (he was making his first Bok start, initially in a position to which he is much more ideally suited) to eight shirt, and under the circumstances did a sterling job on the day as the Boks romped to a 35-12 win and series clean sweep. Ironically, of course, his twin brother Dan is the more dedicated No 8, and also part of the extended national squad this year.

Coenie Oosthuizen at tighthead

Still more accustomed in his first-class career to operating as a fierce, ball-carrying and thumping-tackling loosehead, neck problems in more recent seasons have led to Oosthuizen’s permanent swap to No 3. He’s still had his “problematic” days at scrum-time while he gradually learns the very different trade, but hats off to Coetzee for his faith this season: he gave the player three games on the trot in the position before his injury and Oosthuizen was showing ever-improving assuredness at the set-piece to go with his high tackle counts in general play before his latest (forearm-break) injury setback.

FAILURES:

Johan Goosen at fullback

Increasingly a utility figure after his earlier career was marked more by his regular presence as a booming-booted flyhalf, the controversial Goosen (embroiled in contractual disputes abroad) had five generally unimpressive appearances as the No 15 during Coetzee’s tempestuous 2016 – four of them in Bok losses. He remains “retired” at present, aged a mere 25, but his best chance of any kind of meaningful comeback surely lies in a return to pivot?  

Francois Hougaard at wing

Sadly the versatile Hougaard continually labours these days for consistent good form at Test level after looking such a wonderful prospect several years ago. He has only stuttered for the Boks, whether at more customary scrumhalf (several times this season) or on the wing, where he began four Tests last year and only sampled a Bok victory once. When he briefly found himself effectively at left wing during the 0-57 nightmare in Albany - even as the designated No 9 on the day - he was unceremoniously barged out of a high-ball contest which led to one of the eight All Black tries.

Uzair Cassiem at eighth-man

OK, only relative failure, and debatable? But “plucky” is perhaps the best way to describe how Cassiem, far more accustomed to the side of the scrum for the Cheetahs, has been in a handful of recent games in the No 8 jersey while the Boks try to cope without the specialist credentials of Whiteley. Bok loose forward legend Rob Louw (he was genuinely at home both as an open-sider and eighth-man in his career) told me in the build-up to Albany that he feared for Cassiem’s ability to perform the vital “controlling” functions in the berth, and was it really fair to expect him to prosper against the mighty, now 104-cap Kieran Read on that collectively gruesome day for SA? Expect this to be (or have been) a short-lived posting, I think … 

Trevor Nyakane at tighthead

“Lovely rugby player, but not an international tighthead prop.” Those were the words of former Bok coach Nick Mallett in the SuperSport studio after Nyakane, clearly still more at ease at No 1, had experienced a torrid time in the role as a 55th-minute substitute in Albany. Certainly it looked as if the Boks would be playing with fire against better scrumming packs if Nyakane had to be introduced early due to injury as the tighthead anchor, and an authentic No 3 being stationed on the bench for the two closing Rugby Championship fixtures seems the wisest course of action by coach Coetzee.

Pieter-Steph du Toit at seven flank

He has still seen bits of substitute service there in 2017 (including last weekend), and occupied the role in the ill-fated Twickenham Test, lost 37-21, against England at the end of 2016 … when Ben Youngs gave him the slip to a costly extent twice. But Du Toit clearly favours No 5 lock, and there is a powerful case for saying he should have been retained there in Albany after his commanding showing alongside Eben Etzebeth only a week earlier in Perth. In fairness, whenever he is a sub it is comforting that he can do blindside too … but perhaps only in emergencies?

Nizaam Carr at six flank

The Stormers/WP marauder, back playing some pretty dynamic rugby at Currie Cup level in recent weeks, almost always plays at eighth-man at Newlands.  But Coetzee revisited Carr (after a two-year international gap) for the Boks on the fruitless Euro tour last season – admittedly with broad loosie resources stretched after a long year – and stationed him as the “fetcher” against Italy and Wales. He made little impact there and has barely been discussed as a candidate for that job again in 2017.

Pat Lambie at fullback

It didn’t seem the worst call by the national coach to give Lambie, that intelligent and naturally versatile footballer, a fresh stab in the last line of defence in the home Tests against NZ and Australia last season. He had previously excelled for SA at fullback, notably during the 2011 World Cup. But the now ex-Sharks player was still lacking in fullest confidence after his “CJ Stander” encounter and failed notably to deliver his best rugby there. He has returned to more familiar service at flyhalf since, though remained on an injury tightrope. 

Willem Alberts at six flank 

In the same Test where Du Toit took strain at blind-side against England, Coetzee took the novel decision to use the veteran blind-side specialist ‘Bone Collector’ as the intended scavenger at six. Hardly a Heinrich Brussow in build, Alberts actually had a reasonable game - but mostly using his natural instincts as a seven-type, which meant the Boks were largely outfoxed at the breakdown.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing 

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