Lions’ Bok drive: it’s a fair start

2016-06-09 19:19
Lionel Mapoe (Gallo)

Cape Town – From nought to five, in about eight months.

That is the comforting representation thought for supporters of the Lions, currently South Africa’s leading Super Rugby side and the most watchable and progressive as well, as they chew on Allister Coetzee’s maiden Springbok match-day 23 for the first Test against Ireland at Newlands on Saturday.

The new national coach on Thursday named five Lions customers in his plans for the clash, including a debut for dynamic little Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf and first start – albeit second appearance – for the outside centre with the trademark “chicken run” try-scoring celebration, Lionel Mapoe.

In with good chances of running on at some stage from the bench in the second half (if not summoned due to any injuries before that) are the franchise’s rangy No 8 and captain Warren Whiteley, tighthead strongman Julian Redelinghuys and flyhalf Elton Jantjies.

The last-named player, of course, might have come a lot closer to a starting berth had it not been for the lingering concern over his rehabilitation from a finger injury, but with the experienced and cool Pat Lambie available for the No 10 jersey, it seems to make sense for Jantjies to be delicately “filtered” back instead.

No Bok coach will ever succeed in pleasing all of the people all of the time, so there may be a few, more demanding Lions fans expressing disappointment – or employing stronger lingo -- that in-form right wing Ruan Combrinck didn’t earn a starting berth, or spot among the 23 at all.

Coetzee, clearly aware of the need to field at least a few familiar positional combinations even as he works his new broom, has opted for an all-Sharks back three featuring talisman Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo.

There is also no match-day role yet for tearaway open-sider Jaco Kriel, although his very selection for the more extended Bok party of 31 suggests he is not that far from favour.

In a broader context, Emirates Airline Park diehards should take solace from the fact that Lions involvement is hugely more apparent than it was when the Boks last played a Test match, the successful bronze playoff against Argentina in London at the end of RWC 2015.

On that occasion, coach of the time Heyneke Meyer had precisely zero representation from that franchise in his squad -- despite the Lions already having shown promising growth at Super Rugby level in the 2015 season, where they just missed the playoffs and came second in the then-single SA conference.

So big strides have been made by Coetzee, really, in restoring the perceived imbalance.

The former Stormers mastermind, in naming a side that many had anticipated in the lead-up days anyway, has spread his net reasonably evenly over the domestic Super Rugby outfits: of the three best-performing teams right now, he has given the nod to six from the Capetonian side, five from the Sharks and those aforementioned five from the Johannesburg team.

There are also four Bulls -- including the honour of the captain in the shape of Adriaan Strauss -- one Cheetahs player in Lood de Jager and the expected thumbs-up for two overseas-based players he is so well-acquainted with, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw.

Coetzee also went to some pains to emphasise that he has a long-term “plan” for barrel-chested young loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff, so although a cap remains elusive for the moment, he could feature very soon.

In short, this is arguably one of the least divisive Bok selections in some time … and speaking of “divisive”, the 23 includes nine players of colour in an uncompromising political climate.

That is four better than the tally for Meyer’s assault on the Pumas at the Olympic Stadium on October 30, when the Boks duly won a tedious clash24-13.

As with the Lions recognition issue, you could say things are looking up.

Now this harmonious group of South Africans simply have to deliver crisply between the Newlands lines on Saturday from 17:00 …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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