Cape Town - The loss of Willem Alberts is a bitter blow for the Springboks ahead of their departure for the Australasian leg of the Rugby Championship.
According to the supersport.com website, in both games against Argentina, the Boks found themselves missing Albert’s bone-crunching physicality, and while their lineout options were better in Salta, the loose trio seemed to struggle to act as a unit at times.
Alberts’ partnership with Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw - the other two being standouts in both games against Argentina - was one of the hallmarks of the Bok success in 2013, especially in their big win at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane over Australia last year.
Now with the team leaving for Perth over the weekend and keen to send a message to their countless critics with a good performance in the Western Australian state, coach Heyneke Meyer faces a poser in just what loose trio to choose ahead of the Perth game.
Alberts’ physicality will be missed in the match, but not as much as the Bok loose trio operate as a unit and target the breakdown against some very dangerous opposition in the match.
Marcel Coetzee, after his cameo in Salta, must be favourite to come into the starting line-up in Alberts’ place, but the tactic of playing two opensiders in a test match is not one that has found much favour among the Bok management before.
Much was made in the Loftus downpour that the Boks missed a big ball carrier and back of the lineout option when Coetzee came in as a late replacement for Alberts, prompting the Boks to bring in Juan Smith for the Salta game.
Now Smith has ruled himself out of contention, opting to “work on his fitness” after asking not to be selected and by all accounts has headed back to Toulon to rejoin his French team in their pre-season training.
That in itself is a strange move, especially noting how keen the Boks were to fuel Smith’s fairytale reappearance in the Green and Gold. While Smith made 10 tackles in his 51 minutes on the field, he didn’t have the impact the Boks would have liked and was largely anonymous in the game.
The big loose forward has spoken about how emotional the game was for him after being criticised for not singing the national anthem, but the move to return to Toulon is a very strange one indeed. If Smith’s fitness was a concern before the Salta game, then it raises questions on why he was selected? Were the Boks simply buying in too much in the sentimentality surrounding his miraculous comeback?
In all likelihood it may be that Smith realised in Salta he needed to be fitter for international rugby than he realised and chose to make the sacrifice rather than burden the Bok squad.
And Warren Whiteley’s return to the Bok squad makes for some interesting selections as well.
If we discard the two fetchers theory, and look for a big ball carrier for Perth, then Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje – by virtue of being with the squad for a long time now, and his natural lineout and ball-carrying abilities, is next in line to start for the Boks.
If the Boks decide to bring Whiteley into the mix, it would send out a wrong message for Mohoje, who will rightly feel aggrieved at carrying tackle bags around for a number of weeks.
However, long term, Whiteley’s mobility and his form may be a key move for the Boks, as it wouldn’t be untoward to see Vermeulen move to the side of the scrum to give the physicality, while Whiteley can slot in as a natural number eight.
That loose trio would have both size, physicality and speed and may be a way forward for the Boks in Alberts’ absence. Meyer however, has never been one for kneejerk reactions, and while he has been impressed with Whiteley over the course of the Super Rugby season, and made specific mention of his impact in the Commonwealth Games Sevens victory, it is unclear if he would consider him for a starting role so soon after a call-up.
The biggest problem for the Boks is that they will certainly want to get their combination right, as ideally they would want the same loose trio to play when they get to Wellington to face the All Blacks.
While many may be focusing on the scrum, the Boks need their loose trio to fire.
Setpieces are often determined by technique on the day, while the breakdown is often a referee’s domain to decide who will get quick ball.
A loose trio that plays to their strengths is key to this.
Springbok squad to travel to Australasia:
Bakkies Botha, Schalk Brits, Marcell Coetzee, Lodewyk de Jager, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw, Victor Matfield, Teboho Mohoje, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Adriaan Strauss, Marcel van der Merwe, Duane Vermeulen, Warren Whiteley
Damian de Allende, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Cornal Hendricks, Francois Hougaard, Patrick Lambie, Willie le Roux, Lwazi Mvovo, Ruan Pienaar, Handré Pollard, Cobus Reinach, Jan Serfontein, Morné Steyn