Boks: Schalk could play No 8
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Who takes the fall if veteran flank Juan Smith returns to the Springbok starting line-up in the Vodacom Tri-Nations match against the All Blacks at Soccer City?
That is one of the more intriguing issues after the Cheetahs’ captain was named among a 29-strong training squad ahead of the match on August 21.
The elongated list of names left many critics largely none the wiser as to Bok intentions for the home leg of the Tri-Nations after the traumatic overseas part, although it did seem to indicate a desire not to hit panic buttons to any great extent yet and mostly put faith in incumbent troops after a welcome break.
But the deserved recall of 29-year-old Smith, after he missed the away assignments primarily on personal grounds, presents a conundrum as to the composition of the Bok loose trio in Soweto.
And it might even mean that Schalk Burger revisits the No 8 jersey for the first time at international level since he featured there against the United States at the 2007 World Cup, when South Africa thrashed the United States 64-15 in their last group match at Montpellier.
It is hard to see Ryan Kankowski being retained as the blindside flank, where he operated with some spirit and energy against the Wallabies but is clearly a fish out of water, as his strengths lie for more as a tearaway from the back of the scrum.
Indeed, smart money suggests the Bok loose trio against New Zealand is likeliest to come from a quartet of Burger, Smith, Francois Louw and Pierre Spies.
The Springboks certainly need to urgently restore an individual who plays to the ball, to lessen Burger’s load in that department, and that should mean his Stormers team-mate Louw re-enters the starting picture – no other designated “fetcher” has been named in the squad.
It is imperative that the Boks, over the next few weeks, provide effective counter-measures to the success on the deck of New Zealand captain Richie McCaw and the Aussie burrower David Pocock.
With Smith correctly tipped to return to blindside flank, where he is one of the most honest and yeoman workers you could wish for – not to mention a big lineout factor -- fitting in Louw at No 6 obviously endangers Burger’s spot.
Or does it? The loose forward under the most searching scrutiny is probably Spies who, for all his wonderful gifts in the offensive power and athleticism departments, has been rather exposed for defensive commitment and technique over the past few weeks on the slower, heavier Antipodean pitches.
That said, the Highveld is very much an environment where players like the Bulls No 8 tend to come more strongly into their own, so that only adds to the quandary for the brains trust.
But Burger, a key senior figure in the Bok mix, is arguably well less deserving of the chop than Spies – he was one of few visiting players to show the necessary “ticker” and stamina right up to the closing stages of at least two of the three defeats in Australasia.
In the Super 14 this year, too, his alliance with Louw in the turnovers area had a major impact in the Stormers’ advance to a maiden final appearance: there both operated as flanks with Duane Vermeulen (perhaps unlucky not to get a Bok squad call-up on Sunday) at No 8.
Burger at the back of the scrum might be one way to solve the Bok dilemma. He has never been afraid of the challenge, and at one stage in pre-season the Stormers skipper was being touted to operate there on a full-time basis.
He played in that jersey at school and again at Stellenbosch University, and confidently expressed the view, ahead of the World Cup appearance at No 8 against the US Eagles, that “I don’t think No 8 will change my style of play”.
With combating the wily, presently rampant McCaw a vital aspect if the Boks are to earn a pride-restoring victory in Soweto, a loose trio comprising Louw, Smith and Burger (at No 8) starts to make a bit of sense.