Rugby Championship

Most Bok bases look fragile

2012-09-11 16:17
Morné Steyn (AFP)
Cape Town - Would you prefer the bad news or, er, the bad news?

It is an unusual though inescapable truth that the Springboks look alarmingly unsettled in just about every position right now. I  would venture that, of the starting line-up which squandered a promising lead to lose to similarly wonky Australia in Perth last Saturday, only one department - wing - offered real cause for on-day contentedness.

Both the resurgent, full-blooded Bryan Habana and Francois Hougaard (the latter, significantly, having his most compelling 80-minute outing of the season since shifting from scrumhalf, by my book) looked hungry and sharp - though ironically theirs are postings all too often marked by isolation in a game plan which is well less than partial to front-foot opportunity for them.

But where else on the park can you say with complete confidence that South Africa are soundly, stably staffed - or seeing the fruits of sprightly combinations - midway through the maiden Castle Rugby Championship?

Running through the remaining positions seems to provide confirmation of this grim scenario, a situation obviously not helped at all - and here coach Heyneke Meyer deserves a significant degree of sympathy - by the demoralising absence of several players who were expected to form the new “experienced core” of the team following the various 2011 retirements.

Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, JP Pietersen and Bismarck du Plessis are some who spring to mind, with Meyer’s cause also hardly helped by the “unavailability” at present of other world-class competitors like Fourie du Preez (say what you like, the 30-year-old little maestro could still offer a lot of strategic nous and direction) and Jaque Fourie.

Here is a summary of the volatility, by position, and with wing the only exclusion:

Fullback (incumbent Zane Kirchner)

Sadly Kirchner, now reasonably experienced, has seldom, if ever, produced a truly “wow” game for the Boks. What you see is what you get: effectiveness at fielding high balls and either returning them or finding touch competently. But you don’t see him snaking his way thrillingly -- Dagg- or Beale-like -- through defences. The Gysie Pienaars and Andre Jouberts of yesteryear must look on perturbed. Can the Boks continue to more or less stagnate in this position?

Centre (incumbents Frans Steyn and Jean de Villiers)

Instead of growing as a combo, we seem to instead be seeing only mounting evidence that both men are really better suited to the inside channel. Will something eventually give? The versatile Steyn could certainly be freshly considered for No 15, especially if his post-France conditioning continues to show improvement, which would allow De Villiers, as captain, to get rather closer to the pack (and also, just as usefully sometimes, the referee). But then you are looking anew for an outside centre. Another look at Juan de Jongh’s X-factor, maybe? At least he has a much-needed swerve ...

Flyhalf (incumbent Morné Steyn)

As with the dependable but formulaic Kirchner at fullback, the Boks simply tread water with Steyn in this critical slot. Yes, we know he kicks key goals and that sometimes they’re decisive in Test matches. Sometimes! But it’s also painfully apparent that his reluctance to run “onto” the ball instead of simply receive it in the pocket, will continue to stymie any genuine momentum by the outside backs. It seems only a matter of time, unless Steyn dramatically alters his mindset, for a Johan Goosen or Pat Lambie (or, again, how about Frans Steyn’s adaptable credentials?) to assume the cares of No 10.

Scrumhalf (incumbent Ruan Pienaar)

In the unlikely event that the Boks greatly downgrade their kicking-heavy game in the shortish term, maybe Hougaard will challenge once again at No 9. But good games at wing, a la Perth, will hardly help any quest! There isn’t wonderful depth here: Pienaar was respectable enough in Perth, especially in the dominant first half, but is yet to totally assure us he’s the long-term answer. Defence comes under critical scrutiny at times ...

Loose forward (incumbents Marcell Coetzee, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen)

Surprise ... yes, there are even problems here, and this an area more often marked by modern Bok invincibility. Coetzee is perhaps being overplayed and it may explain, at least to a degree, why he appears to be fading rather than growing as a dedicated open-sider. Is it worth trying him at seven, or eight? Meanwhile the return to first-class activity of dedicated fetcher Heinrich Brüssow will continue to deeply interest many, many South Africans. At No 7, Alberts, for me, looks suspiciously best employed as a second-half impact factor, a role in which he first made his name. The human pile-driver’s work-rate over full games is nothing to write home about right now, is it? Meanwhile we are all desperate for a Bok No 8 to finally grab a game by the scruff of the neck. Perhaps a gradually rehabilitating Vermeulen will yet achieve this, though whether he’s quite ready to dominate Kieran Read ... hmm. But then, who can or does?

Lock (incumbents Eben Etzebeth - though briefly suspended - and Juandré Kruger)

Oh, for the stability we had in the Matfield-Botha heyday. Still, a period of transition and some associated pain after the Blood Brothers was inevitable. Etzebeth will only get better and better next year at No 4, if properly managed. He must be close to exhaustion in his meteoric, maiden first-class season - maybe it explains his little brain (well, forehead) fart in Perth. The “looser” lock spot continues to serve up a quandary: is Andries Bekker ever going to be properly fit again? Does Kruger really have the requisite desire? Compilation of the new-look second-row dossier goes on, as it must.

Front row (incumbents Tendai Mtawarira, Adriaan Strauss, Jannie du Plessis)

His form is unusually innocuous at present, but there is little doubt in my own mind that Mtawarira will come right, as class acts do. A fit-again Coenie Oosthuizen will help push him soon, too. Strauss was busier in Perth than he was in Mendoza, which is a positive. Busier still in Dunedin would greatly help. At the same time, the mongrel of Battleship Bismarck is undoubtedly missed - not least because he was possibly also the closest thing to a pilferer in the Bok pack before his knee setback. Tighthead stocks are threadbare, giving his older brother a rather too comfy ride there. The rookie Frans Malherbe has been summoned as cover to New Zealand ... and he can’t even be assured a WP starting berth at present ahead of Brok Harris, for goodness sake.
Meyer names Saturday’s team to face New Zealand in Dunedin on Wednesday (early hours, SA time).
Good luck, that man ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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