Springboks

Boks stay brittle in the back three!

2017-08-28 14:32
Raymond Rhule (Gallo)

Cape Town – Injuries may be causing some unavoidable grey areas – notably at scrumhalf and now also tighthead prop – but the Springboks in broadest terms can confidently be branded a “plan coming together”.

They are light years better than last season in a multitude of respects, which are not limited to just staffing and selection issues: the squad spirit seems first-class and they are showing pleasing new levels of skills, tactical appreciation and gumption.

Above all, maybe, a strong sense of stability characterises the present team, with consistency in choice of the match-day 23 bearing serious fruit, en route to a 100 percent record after five Test matches.

Inevitably, the injury factor comes into play as the rugby year drags on, and Allister Coetzee and his lieutenants have certain potholes to cover as they prepare for the Australasian leg of the Castle Rugby Championship, beginning against the Wallabies in Perth in just under a fortnight.

It is not yet known whether first-choice Ross Cronje will be passed fit for the scrumhalf role against Australia – Francois Hougaard again noticeably underwhelmed during the triumph over Argentina in Salta – but if the Lions man is ready to return, it will ease the situation there.

The news that in-form Coenie Oosthuizen (just as he is really showing his true value as a beefy anchor at tighthead) has a rib problem is another inconvenience to grapple with ahead of the next two legs of the Championship, but in most other positional departments the Boks are in pretty good fettle.

There is a persistent exception, however … the back three.

Just glancing at my own player ratings for each of the five Bok matches thus far, the most glaring common denominator is that fullback and the two wings have been enduring areas of mediocrity – sometimes at best – for the national team.

The Boks have pinned their faith in the trio of Andries Coetzee at fullback, Raymond Rhule at right wing and Courtnall Skosan on the left religiously since the international season began, and sadly there is a viable case for suggesting the alliance hasn’t quite cut the mustard.

I feared from the outset that the collective lack of experience – all debuted in the first Test against France at Loftus, and thus now possess a still-flimsy combined total of 15 caps – made the Boks susceptible in those areas just on that basis.

And truth be told, neither of France or Argentina subsequently had the nous or ability – including within their own back threes, really - to genuinely exploit that shortcoming.

Throughout the last couple of months of Test activity, there has been too little thus far from any of the Bok incumbents in those berths to suggest they are properly battened down yet at the highest level.

For what it’s worth, the average rating for the three, across the five internationals, has been just below six out of 10 on my performance chart, although I am fairly confident many other pundits would roughly concur.

The only Test where they might be said to have earned a reasonably emphatic tick as a collective was the second against the French at Kings Park, where Coetzee rated a six, Rhule seven (the best level I have mustered for any of them in the five Tests) and Skosan a 6.5.

Having said that, though, the Ghanaian-born speedster Rhule has tended to be the weakest link, by my book, if judged over the course of all the Tests -- with his indecisive defence an especially visible frailty.

The 24-year-old flier has great attacking X-factor at Super Rugby level, where the more frequent opportunity, usually, to crack on the burners in space suits him well.

But in the tighter world of high-stakes Test matches, space is often a luxury and the more workmanlike, strategic and defence-geared aspects of a wing’s makeup come into play to a greater degree.

It is here where Rhule remains open to harsh scrutiny, although Coetzee and Skosan have not yet utterly convinced that they are markedly more comfortable, either.

The Bok coach and his lieutenants must be hoping that, with each Test match together, the trio will only gain in confidence and assuredness, although we have arguably seen more of a flat-lining trend despite flashes of promise at times in all three customers.

Certain ongoing imperfections to the alliance during the Salta triumph will undoubtedly have pricked up the interest – if not already - of Wallaby coaching firebrand Michael Cheika and his All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen.

Both Australasian sides traditionally field at least one or two unusually physically-imposing players in their back threes, so apart from the likelihood that the Bok wings and fullback may well have to deal with a lot more shortly in tactical kick-receipt terms, their ability to keep in check big rival units charging at them is also going to come under the microscope.

If Coetzee does keep the current combination together, they will perilously concede a fair bit both in kilograms and top-flight experience, you can virtually be sure, to their direct rivals in Perth and, a week later, Albany.

Cheika may well be expected to keep almost entirely intact the Aussie starting XV who so bravely went down 35-29 at the last gasp to the All Blacks in Dunedin at the weekend; in which case the Bok back three can expect to encounter Israel Folau (57 caps), Dane Haylett-Petty (18) and Henry Speight (14).

Not only is that a way superior collective appearances tally (89), but they will significantly outmuscle the Bok back three as well.

Wallaby right wing Haylett-Petty doubles usefully as a fullback, of course, and the same applies to one of the current All Black wings, Ben Smith – such adaptability, which naturally bolsters positional acumen and general game readership, is comforting in a defensive capacity.

Right now, many South Africans are entitled to regret the absence, in faraway Japan, of someone like Ruan Combrinck, who has strong claims, frankly, to both the Bok No 14 and even No 15 jerseys and could offer a touch more stability, steel and calmness to the unit than being witnessed of late …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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