If policy dictates that the Springbok captain has to be locally based, then he also has to undoubtedly be the number one in his playing position.
I’ve always been vocal about Duane Vermeulen as my choice of Springbok No 8 and captain in 2017.
This hasn’t changed.
Vermeulen has gravitas as a Test leader. He has the respect of his team-mates and of the opposition. I don’t agree with the view that Vermeulen’s conditioning is lacking or that his form at Toulon is poor.
The Top 14 is a very different tournament to Super Rugby and the European and French domestic competitions make for a Northern Hemisphere marathon. Vermeulen, in the three-Test series against France, would be an invaluable asset to any Springbok starting XV.
If there were concerns about his physical and mental fatigue because of the draining nature of his season, then the same would apply to the entire French squad.
And if that was the case then why put any value on the Springboks’ performance against a supposedly inferior opponent whose players compete in a supposedly inferior competition?
To be dismissive of Vermeulen and other leading South Africans playing in the Top 14 would by definition imply being dismissive of the French challenge.
If Vermeulen is not deemed to be at a Test level because of the competition in which he plays, then that would surely apply to the French team whose performance in South Africa may yet decide Allister Coetzee’s international future.
France will be competitive and, at their best, will present a challenge as tough as any. I don’t think their players have the mental strength to win a series in South Africa, just like they wouldn’t triumph in a three-Test series in New Zealand or even Australia. But they’re good enough to win one Test and to create doubt going into a series decider.
The French team will comprise world-class players, who earn their living in Top 14. Our rugby public will put them on a pedestal and talk up their danger and at the same time dismiss the danger that the likes of Vermeulen pose to the French.
If Vermeulen was wearing the French No 8 jersey there wouldn’t quite be the dismissive talk. The man’s a South African rugby asset. Use him - if not as the captain - then definitely as the starting No 8 in the Test series.
Which brings me back to who captains the Springboks. If not Vermeulen and if a local based option, then it has to be a player whose starting position is without question.
On form and pedigree that player would be the Lions flank Jaco Kriel.
A year ago I described Kriel as having a Richie McCaw-like presence to the Lions and his work rate and influence on a game is McCaw-ish in every aspect. If he was a Kiwi or a Frenchman we’d be raving about him. If he had left South Africa in 2015 to pursue a career in Europe he’d be playing for one of the Six Nations teams. He’d be a CJ Stander (of Ireland) and the talk would be of how a South African player of that class was gift wrapped and given to another country.
Kriel’s pedigree as a Lions leader and player grows with each outing. He was mammoth against the Stormers but it was a performance that has been consistent with so many big games Kriel has played in the last two years.
Whiteley is a very good rugby player but I wouldn’t start him ahead of Vermeulen for the Springboks. He’s good enough to be in the Bok match day squad, but his skill set would make for a greater impact running against tiring minds and legs. Vermeulen and Whiteley (combined) on match day are an appetising combination for the first Test against France.
Kriel has been patient in the national regard. He toured with Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks but never got a game. He lead the Lions to an unbeaten Currie Cup-winning campaign in 2015 but never got a look in to the Springboks and in 2016 his brilliant Super Rugby form got minimal international reward.
Kriel epitomises everything you want in a Bok Test player and a leader. Several Lions players have consistently shown the pedigree and fight that differentiates the good Super Rugby player from the Test player.
(Allister) Coetzee has been reluctant to invest in Lions players and it has been to his detriment. The Lions, in beating the Stormers, made a Test statement as much as they did one concerning their Super Rugby title aspirations.
Kriel and Franco Mostert produced imposing Test-like performances. Equally, Ruan Ackermann. Ross Cronje was another whose performance at scrumhalf had Test presence.
The Lions are South Africa’s most complete team.
Coetzee, in 2016, was deaf to the roar of the Lions but he surely couldn’t have been blind to the lesson they dealt the Stormers or to the performance of Kriel.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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