Cape Town – Instability reigns to a very disconcerting
extent as the Springboks gear up for arguably their most hyped Test match of
the calendar year against England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Coach Allister Coetzee was never done any favours in
scheduling terms, with the toughest of the three end-of-year internationals on
paper coming at the front of the roster, rather than after a potentially useful
“build-up” against Italy and Wales – and even those matches offer little
instinctive guarantee of comfort from a South African perspective.
The wild and woolly Barbarians match last weekend did
desperately little to clear the fog, given just how experimental the Bok XV
fielded at Wembley for the 31-31 draw was, and also the fact that the
unsatisfactory display offered few solutions for the structure of Coetzee’s
“A-team”, in truth.
Instead, then, Coetzee has to page back to the last Test
match, against New Zealand in Durban on October 8, for any prior frame of
reference … and nobody needs reminding that it was a stinging 57-15 defeat.
All that event is likely to have done is strip away certain
personnel in the mind of embattled Coetzee, though sadly leaving only voids in
certain positions that hardly overflow with clear-cut, convincing alternatives.
Although injuries, almost inevitably at this advanced stage
of the southern season, have taken a fairly savage toll – though ditto England,
of course – the Boks sadly look in as much (if not more) disarray in both
player priority and game-plan terms as they have throughout 2016 thus far.
Perhaps the only area that may stay largely – perhaps even
fully? – unchanged after the Durban fiasco is his tight five, where all of
Tendai Mtawarira, captain Adriaan Strauss, Vincent Koch, Eben Etzebeth and
Pieter-Steph du Toit might be retained (possibly a good idea, considering how
many changes elsewhere there are likely to be to the starting line-up from
Of those tight forwards, scrum anchorman Koch is probably
under the greatest threat for his spot from specialist scrummager Lourens
Adriaanse at No 3, although the former is better renowned as a ball-carrier and
general contributor outside of the set-piece – and the current Boks, struggling
so often for good field position, need all the go-forward they can get.
The loose trio, to be blunt, is a bit of a nightmare with so
many credible candidates ruled out and the No 6 “fetcher” spot a particular
head-scratcher with no specialist, inexplicably, left in the party.
My vote would go to an emergency stationing in the role,
given the circumstances, of Uzair Cassiem, the abrasive Cheetahs blind-sider
who has a fierce work ethic – a good start – and is probably capable of making
the adjustment to being a nuisance over the ball.
Yes, he would be a debutant on a truly pressure-cooker
stage, but he may just be worth the risk. If they get cold feet on that score,
then two Test-cap Nizaam Carr, who showed some good touches at No 8 against the
BaaBaas and has at least operated at six before, would be my next cab off the
Oupa Mohoje is the reasonably lengthy incumbent of the No 7
jersey … and, to be blunt, inexplicably so in this scribe’s book.
Having started every Test in the largely ill-fated Rugby
Championship, and then been muted once more when he had the chance to really assert
himself against the BaaBaas, the athletic Mohoje continues to be too fitful a
presence, making good enough trackback-type tackles, but showing way too little
mongrel and zeal as a front-foot factor.
This is impeding the Boks’ quest to boss real estate more
than they seem to realise, and even considering the very real danger that his
best days have long past, I believe the Boks could do much worse than ask that
32-year-old behemoth Willem Alberts to take the blind-side chore instead this
weekend in conditions that ought to suit his style of play.
Warren Whiteley, the No 8, faces an acid examination on this
tour of his ability to be effective at close quarters, but he has the potential
to be a factor with his mobility nevertheless – as long as he has two renowned,
robust flankers around him in the loose trio to act as suitable “balancers”.
Simply for the sake of promoting continuity, keeping the
halfback alliance that played the Barbarians, Rudy Paige and Pat Lambie, seems
the correct medicine although the latter is still worryingly short of his
A-game – this would be an ideal occasion to set things right, wouldn’t it?
Francois Venter must be on the radar quite strongly for
outside centre, but there are potential fruits to be enjoyed from assembling
the all-Lions duo of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe, who dovetailed
so well in Super Rugby, in midfield.
If both are free of their reported pre-game niggles, veteran
wings Bryan Habana and the satisfyingly big JP Pietersen should be reunited for
an occasion that may not be pretty, and where experience could be a telling
factor on Saturday – though I wouldn’t have a heart attack if Jamba Ulengo was
suddenly propelled to a Test cap.
What then of fullback, such an area of indecisiveness for
the Boks this year? My choice would be Lions utility factor Ruan Combrinck,
despite his encouraging initial displays at right wing earlier this year before
He has a decent boot, good positional alertness, plus the
ability to back up Lambie in the place-kicking department – especially from
major distance -- if necessary.
It is going to be difficult, frankly, to expect any Bok
combo that may run out at “Twickers” to gel swiftly, although one inadvertent
blessing is that England last had a gallop as a team as far back as June when
they clean-swept Australia away 3-0.
From the current Bok squad,
and although there are some lingering injury concerns in the camp, this would
be the team I would be tempted to start with for the England match:
15 Ruan Combrinck, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12
Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Rudy Paige, 8
Warren Whiteley, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Uzair Cassiem/Nizaam Carr, 5 Pieter-Steph
du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Tendai
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