Schalk Burger (Gallo images)
Johannesburg - The injuries that have kept key Springbok loose forwards out of rugby for lengthy periods over the past 12 months have proved an unexpected positive that has left coach Heyneke Meyer with a massive selection quandary as he prepares to name his 31-man World Cup squad on Friday.
According to supersport.com website, the Boks have headed into the last week of their pre-World Cup training camp in Umhlanga Rocks with two of the three members of what was last year considered the first choice back row on the sidelines.
Francois Louw is due back shortly from a three week lay-off and Duane Vermeulen will almost certainly be included in the squad even though he will miss the first game against Japan in Brighton.
Only big Willem Alberts, who himself was out for the entire Rugby Championship and only returned to action in the friendly international against Argentina in Buenos Aires last time out, has been the only one of the three who has been a regular participator in Bok training in recent weeks.
The combination of Louw, Alberts and Vermeulen was developing well before injury parted them and most would consider that to still be Meyer’s first choice backrow.
However, as breakdown coach Richie Gray has acknowledged, there are suddenly options that weren’t there before, and it probably wouldn’t be a train smash for the Boks if some of those players weren’t quite ready for the World Cup.
For a start, Schalk Burger has regained his old momentum and has done well as a No 8, with the flair picked up in Japan turning him into an important cog in the Bok attacking game.
Marcell Coetzee was brilliant as part of the two fetcher combination that played against Australia and then Heinrich Brussow did the business when he got his chance against New Zealand and then the two Test matches against Argentina.
The form shown by Brussow has lessened the urgency to get Coetzee back into the mix following the injury he suffered in the Durban defeat to the Pumas, but even if he is available, he probably isn’t a certainty given the options that Meyer has available to him.
The Sharks players ability to flit between No 6 and No 7, and he is passable as a ball carrying blindside flank, should make him a strong contender, but Meyer has to also consider the importance of having a back-up for the Alberts role. That brings Pieter-Steph du Toit into the picture, and you would imagine that Meyer’s decision to play him as a replacement flank in Buenos Aires was a prelude to him filling the role of flank/lock cover.
It might then come to a straight choice between Brussow and Coetzee for the role of openside back-up to Louw, and let's not forget that Oupa Mohoje and Siya Kolisi have also been given game opportunities with the view to putting them in the frame for selection. At the end of the day, depending on what Du Toit is consigned as if he is included in the 31, there will only be five or six loose forward spots available.
For Gray, the identity of the players who make up the loose-forward group may be less relevant now than it was 12 months ago, when the Bok backrow was a closed shop.
“In my first two years with the Boks the backrow appeared to be the same all the time. It was Francois, Willem and Duane, with Marcell or Siya sometimes coming off the bench,” said Gray.
“But last year because of injuries we went through a lot of different personnel, and it served to showcase the depth we have in that position and gave players a chance to develop and offer us different options. The injuries have been unfortunate, but that’s life and something you anticipate in rugby.
“A lot of supporters talk about how great it will be when player X or Y will be available again, but the reality is that you may never get them back. That’s just the way it is. So it has been pleasing to see the ability of the back rowers I have worked with in the last few years now coming through.
“Apart from the loose-forwards in the squad, there are also the guys on the periphery, who aren’t even here and are playing Currie Cup. On the last end of year tour we had Jaco Kriel and Nizaam Carr with us and they are both very good players. There is a lot of great loose-forward talent, and there is not much separating them. The separation between those who are in the team and those who aren’t is a matter of millimetres.”
Gray said the important challenge that needed to be confronted and overcome in selection was getting the right balance.
“We do have an embarrassment of riches in the backrow, but we want a blend there and what is important is that we have the ability to field back rows that suit different opponents and situations encountered during the tournament,” he said.
“The matches against the All Blacks and Wallabies showed that the loose-forward configuration can change the ebb and flow of a game and have a dramatic impact on how a game goes. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket.”
In other words, the Boks will be looking to go to the World Cup with more loose trio configuration options than just the openside scavenger and ball carrying blindside flank combination that was the Meyer staple for the first years of his reign.
The coach was right when after the loss to the Pumas he suggested that he’d read it wrong, meaning that the two fetcher combination that thrived in the fast paced games against New Zealand and Australia fell short against northern hemisphere style opposition and the type of rugby that is likely to be encountered in the knock-out phase of the World Cup.
The Alberts physical presence and ability to thrust across the gainline is going to be crucial in the games against northern hemisphere opposition, but having the ability to slow down the Australians and New Zealanders and at the same time quicken their own attacking game could be crucial in matches against those opponents.
The Wallabies showed in Brisbane, when they came back strongly once David Pocock was introduced for the last half hour of the game, how impactful a two fetcher combination could be in terms of effecting a momentum shift in the last quarter.
Gray has noted that the Boks have improved significantly when it comes to their performance in his field of expertise, the breakdowns. They topped the stats in the Championship at both the attacking and defensive breakdowns, and the influence of eccentric French referee Romain Poite on the performance in that phase against the Pumas in Durban cannot be underestimated.
“The difference between Durban and Buenos Aires, where our breakdown work was good again, was that we very quickly knew where we stood with the referee in Buenos Aires. But we have to sort that out ourselves. There is a slight difference between interpretation in the north and the south but hopefully everyone will be on the same page when the World Cup arrived.”
Gray stressed that while the media and fans like to place a lot of focus on the so-called fetchers or ball scavenging openside flanks, the responsibility at the breakdown actually rests with all 15 players, and it is as a team that the Boks have improved.