Cape Town – Temporary leadership is a pressing issue as a Springbok side presumably irked by their late surrender to Australia prepare for the challenge of the world champion All Blacks in Johannesburg on Saturday.
For the relatively little it is worth in a year when the World Cup is by far the greatest prize at stake, the Boks may well have already blown their chances of winning an abbreviated Castle Rugby Championship for the first time since they did so in its prior Tri-Nations format back in 2009.
But repeating last year’s Ellis Park triumph over the title-holding New Zealanders would at least put them quite firmly back in contention for those particular spoils and be a huge tonic with fast-looming RWC 2015 in mind.
The Boks will all too ruefully know that they had the Wallabies almost down and out when they opened up a commanding 20-7 lead five minutes into the second half in Brisbane, only to wilt at the all-important business end of the clash – you also have to give some credit to the near-extraordinary Aussie comeback spirit on the day.
Settled, astute and inspirational captaincy was understandably in short supply for the visitors in the dramatic closing stages, given the forced withdrawal from the fray after only 18 minutes on Saturday of chosen skipper Victor Matfield, and the fact that intended World Cup leader Jean de Villiers was continuing his fitness rehabilitation quest for the premier tournament thousands of kilometres away.
Despite the increasingly good post-match vibes surrounding the mishaps experienced by both Matfield and Marcell Coetzee against the Wallabies – Coetzee has tweeted of his knee problem that it is “just a lummy” – neither forward seems likely to play against the All Blacks; the team is to be revealed on Wednesday.
Designated vice-captain Ruan Pienaar took over the reins for almost 50 minutes at Suncorp Stadium (before being replaced himself by Cobus Reinach at scrumhalf for the last 13 minutes) and if the current pecking order is to be observed, would seem logical man to lead out the troops before a full house on the Highveld against the fiercest rugby enemy.
Or is he?
With due respect to the seasoned Pienaar, perhaps he should be left to continue with his own pleasingly decent input of late purely as a player, and remain the “’number two” and backline leader.
Against a team of the massive calibre of the All Blacks, I just fancy that the Boks could do with a known fire-in-the-belly character at the helm: for all his cerebral qualities, the Ulster-based No 9 exudes a reasonably mellow body language.
That is not always a bad thing on a rugby field, of course ... but not necessarily in leadership, and a personal view is that either of Schalk Burger or Francois Louw, two of the Bok loose trio who ruled the roost for big chunks of the Aussie game, should instead perform the stand-in role if Matfield is definitely ruled out.
Burger is one the most experienced members of the current Bok squad (playing just about as well as he has ever done) and is no stranger to the Stormers leadership at Super Rugby level – it was also he, significantly, who gave the suitably gracious on-field TV interview from a Bok perspective immediately after the dust had settled at Suncorp.
Meanwhile Louw, already identified more than a year back by coach Heyneke Meyer as a possible Bok skipper if needed, is a world-wise campaigner who commands respect among his team-mates and has had stints as captain of his English club Bath.
In pure selection terms, it is obviously not that easy, with experimentation an ever-present possibility by coaches in the couple of months of RWC build-up, to predict how Meyer will act after the disappointing Brisbane setback which had featured several really good qualities for the lion’s share of the match.
But if he chooses not to shuffle his resources too much – that might almost smack of panic to some observers? – he may well only plug the expected, necessary Matfield and Coetzee holes at No 5 lock and blindside flank respectively.
Yes, there are some questions around the decidedly hot-and-cold performances Down Under of fullback Willie le Roux and flyhalf Handre Pollard, but these are also the type of mercurial players who will be necessary if the Boks are to somehow outwit the wily All Blacks.
Pollard, let’s not forget, has a pleasingly developing little reputation for giving problems to these particular opponents.
The Coetzee void, I would suggest, is best filled by the installation of laudably versatile Burger in the No 7 jersey, even if we learnt in Brisbane that he is a great option at eighthman in the event that Duane Vermeulen doesn’t make it to the World Cup.
A personal gut feel is that Oupa Mohoje is still too callow -- and also too under-cooked after missing so much of Super Rugby this year -- for the run-out chore against the All Blacks in the berth and is best deployed as a substitute impact factor at this stage.
That ought to mean another opportunity for Lions skipper Warren Whiteley to get a start in his preferred No 8 role; some feel he was unlucky to fall right out of the match-day 23 against the Wallabies after tackling the World XV at Newlands.
Jean de Villiers had hinted knowingly in a guest appearance on SuperSport’s Boots & All last week that he expected Whiteley to get another crack some time, pointing out that he was well suited to the hard and fast Jo’burg conditions he is so familiar with at franchise level.
As for the Matfield gap, why would you wish, frankly, to look beyond lanky Lood de Jager, after his wholly inspiring 62 minutes off the bench against Australia?
It was certainly not the fault of the 22-year-old Cheetahs player or his snorting second-row ally Eben Etzebeth that the Boks blew that one.
While it is true that De Jager is better suited at this stage of his development to the No 4 berth, another opportunity to grow into an alternative role that is not too healthily-stocked in Bok terms right now seems the correct medicine.
Possible Bok starting XV on Saturday: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar (vice-captain), 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Schalk Burger (captain), 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
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