Springboks

2017: Make or break for THESE Boks?

2017-01-31 12:25
Siya Kolisi (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – A watershed rugby season looms at all levels for several Springboks who have gone a bit beyond the category of young promise and potentially flirt with mid-career mediocrity.

Are they going to use Super Rugby 2017 as a platform for reasserting themselves as attractive Test options?

In certain cases, are they -- just as importantly -- going to be injury-free and at optimum fitness levels at last?

Here is my own choice of five undoubtedly gifted and previously Bok-capped players, from major South African franchises, who must hope to hit the ground running in late February or pretty quickly thereafter…

Coenie Oosthuizen (Sharks, 27)

You have to feel for Oosthuizen, the explosive behemoth still waiting to put a major stamp on his tenure in Durban after the shift from the interior.

Best equipped for the loosehead prop spot, where he has rather more scope for ball-in-hand devastation and bone-shuddering hits with his near-130kg frame, he remains slightly stymied by the belief that his neck is best preserved from further trouble by playing on the other side of the scrum.

The transition has not been all plain sailing, that’s for sure … rather bearing out what Jannie du Plessis once said in just short of choice French: “It is flipping difficult (to make the switch).”

Still, Oosthuizen has shown every now and then that he can, indeed, hack it – a very convincing Bok start against France in a Parisian victory in late 2013 comes to mind – on his “wrong” side, and perhaps developmental patience is still required in his case.

Not aiding his bid just to start regularly for the Sharks this year, of course, is that Tendai Mtawarira remains very much the first-choice loosehead, whilst competition for the right-shoulder task comes from fellow-Bok Lourens Adriaanse and another burly front-ranker trying out the No 3 side of the engine room, Thomas du Toit.

Yet if Big Coenie plays out of his skin in open exchanges, he can make himself very hard to ignore.

Siya Kolisi (Stormers, 25)

The big danger with Kolisi, I have begun to feel, is that he could simply become a reasonably convenient jack-of-two-trades (open-side and blindside flank) … yet master of none in particular, as versatility becomes an inadvertent impediment.

When he hasn’t been injured, and this is a player already blighted by reasonably long-term disruptions, the Stormers have been unable to conclusively decide over the years whether they fancy Kolisi more as a No 6 “fetcher” or blindside bruiser.

It is a pretty understandable quandary, given that physically the engaging character from Zwide falls somewhere in between – arguably a tad too tall at 1.88m to be an outright mole, and also not quite bulky enough at some 101kg to be the ideal No 7, who is often a customer these days able to fill in as a lock as a well.

Even as the debate rages around his real suitability, Kolisi inevitably produces magical little moments in either capacity (when he is fully fit, especially) to remind just why he is already a 16-cap Springbok since 2013, even if start-out roles have been limited to three internationals.

He can look like a ton-of-bricks specimen in contact situations – a bit of heart can go a long, long way – and there have been times when he has demonstrated outrageous, cheeky foot-skills to make him surprisingly elusive on the run.

Kolisi’s Super Rugby in 2016 came to a brutal halt when he damaged an ankle very early in the disastrous 60-21 home quarter-final loss to the Chiefs.

He will be praying for an overdue, uninterrupted 2017 … and perhaps also a solid stint in just one of the flank berths, whichever Stormers coach Robbie Fleck decides that may be?

Jan Serfontein (Bulls, 23)

The youngest of the five players spotlighted here (though he turns 24 in April), Serfontein naturally has more time on his side than the others to thoroughly reignite his Test credentials.

He looked such a dazzling talent some five years ago, when he was a member of the SA under-20 team that won the then-IRB Junior World Championship on home soil and was named global player of the year at that level – some said he was destined to emulate the great Danie Gerber for midfield artistry.

Serfontein has since won 26 Test caps (though perhaps tellingly only 11 starts) with the last of them at the back end of RWC 2015.

A fractured wrist in mid-2016 played havoc with that campaign for him, coming on top of prior medical setbacks for the Port Elizabeth-born player, and he has also see-sawed between the two midfield berths even though his most natural station remains the inside role.

He seemed to develop a slightly damaging “head down” approach to his rugby with the Bulls whenever available over the last couple of Super Rugby seasons; restoration of his attacking wizardry and playing more on impulse and instinct at times would go a long way to catapulting him back into the Bok reckoning in a very unsettled area …

Elton Jantjies (Lions, 26) 

Perhaps even some diehard Lions fans will have grudgingly realised that the “Lions way”, admirable though it was for so much of last year, isn’t simply carbon-copied at international level.

Yes, the Boks were wretched and tactically indecisive so much of the time, but it still seemed too clear to sober neutrals that Jantjies, who oozes X-factor when his heart and mind are in it, looks a bit fish-out-of-water whenever he dons the green and gold.

The Lions, and the Johannesburg scene generally, is this quite sensitive soul’s comfort zone and if he isn’t going to expand his horizons mentally he will slip further in the Bok flyhalf pecking order, regardless of who coaches them for most or all of this year.

Adding to his difficulties is that someone like Handre Pollard, the most “direct” and physically assertive of SA pivots, is back in the hunt in 2017 after his write-off year.

Jantjies will have to recreate the sparkle of much of his 2016 Super Rugby campaign – and then some, even? – if he is to add to his 11 Bok caps.

Trevor Nyakane (Bulls, 27)

There has been a bit of a vicious circle with regards to Nyakane in recent times … the less game-time he gets (whether at Test or first-class level) the more his conditioning and sharpness suffers.

So what does he do to counter-act that? There is a strong case for suggesting the ball is in his court if he is to shed the hallmark of being a “good tackle-bags carrier” yet largely, frustratingly dormant come Saturdays.

This hefty unit is a popular character in squads (whether Bulls or Boks) but coaches clearly lack confidence in his ability to be consistently dynamic and up-to-speed as a match-day starter.

A fine loosehead scrummager when the mood grabs him, and tough-to-haul-down carrier as well with his low centre of gravity, there has been some dabbling in the No 3 task with Nyakane, though a personal wish is that someone – anyone! – gets him properly fired-up and committed and also puts an end to a wishy-washy “utility” quest that may do him few favours.

Still, he’s got to leapfrog the exciting Lizo Gqoboka to the Bulls’ No 1 jersey first.

Eish … “splinters” guy yet again?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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