Rugby Championship

Acid test for lightweight Bok backs

2016-09-16 15:35
Juan de Jongh (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – In an unusual state of affairs, the three most physically imposing backline players statistically in Saturday’s Castle Rugby Championship clash between the All Blacks and Springboks in Christchurch will all be New Zealanders.

Back-in-form left wing Julian “The Bus” Savea (1.92m, 109kg), and the centre pairing of Ryan Crotty (1.81m, 97kg) and Malakai Fekitoa (1.87m, 99kg) will go into the contest knowing that nobody among the visiting back division will quite match up to them in the muscle stakes.

 Yes, the All Blacks have often in modern times had at least one near-freak, unmatched juggernaut to run at the Boks – Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu spring quickly to mind – but that has generally been countered in the brawn department by South Africa fielding several suitably tall and sturdy backs of their own, to avoid being too intimidated in “tale of the tape” terms.

For all the talk of the Boks trying to embrace new, more daring ways and thus potentially being more partial to some twinkle-toed customers regardless of their vital statistics, size does still matter in rugby terms, especially if – as the All Blacks do – a team can boast athletes combining sheer, door-smashing power with explosive pace.

It is for that reason that a well-merited theory is doing the punditry rounds in New Zealand that their more robust backs, even if sometimes simply to punch the initial hole for silkier characters around them, will wish to have a special “go” at the still makeshift-looking and uncharacteristically lightweight Bok backline unit.

The issue did not escape the attention this week of an All Black legend-laden panel on the NZ television chat show The Breakdown, including anchor Jeff Wilson, John Kirwan and Ian Jones.

They were clearly, collectively pretty surprised at how the Boks have moved away from a robust feel to their backline, agreeing that it is strange to see South Africa not field, for instance, “a big twelve” – the relatively diminutive (though eternally tenacious) Juan de Jongh wears that jersey at AMI Stadium.

The limited physical dimensions of flyhalf Elton Jantjies were also scrutinised, amidst a suggestion that his channel would be targeted for ball-in-hand attack, whilst the panel added to the pressure on the baby-faced Lions pivot by suggesting he has been running lines of his own that are too lateral for the Boks, to the detriment of those outside him.

A scrumhalf operating at wing, in the shape of Francois Hougaard, was another factor hardly escaping their analytical attention.

With the current All Blacks mixing up their running vibrancy with no lack of astute tactical kicking, a further concern for Bok supporters may well be that the national team’s aerial contesting – perhaps an additional signal of their shortcomings in backline height? – isn’t looking especially assured.

There is little to no justification for questioning the spirit or desire of the Springbok starting back division re-selected en masse for this weekend despite the disappointing reverse to the Wallabies in Brisbane.

The old saying of the “size of the fight in the dog, rather than the size of the dog in the fight” being what counts certainly still holds plenty of merit.

But the All Blacks are nevertheless bound to endeavour quite earnestly to make physical advantage in the backline work in their favour in this Test, especially while the clamour back in South Africa for that meaty yet skilful midfielder Rohan Janse van Rensburg (108kg) to “bulk up” the Boks remains ignored at this point.

The Lions powerhouse was impressive on the front foot once more in the Lions’ Currie Cup humdinger against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Thursday night, blasting over for a close-range try himself and teeing up another through use of his amazing leg drive.

Should he get a call-up for the home return fixtures against the Wallabies and All Blacks respectively, he would restore at least some physical “balance” – necessary, I would argue – to the Bok back unit.

Remember that when last the Boks played New Zealand, the narrowly-lost RWC 2015 semi-final, their backline was at least the match for the All Blacks from a size point of view, as such sturdy customers as Handre Pollard, Damian de Allende and JP Pietersen counted among the initial XV.

And when the Boks last beat the All Blacks on their own soil in Hamilton in 2009 – no other team has managed that subsequently – the fullback was big Francois Steyn (remember him?) and the midfield hardly shrinking violets in build either: Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers.

Meanwhile, however, in the absence of their own “bullmastiffs” behind the scrum, the 2016 Bok backs will need to show unified, unrelenting terrier-like defensive qualities if they are to subdue on Saturday a wide spectrum of raiders, given the All Blacks’ hunger for “total rugby” when opportunities arise …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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