Cape Town - The Springbok backline seems
most in need of a fairly dramatic shakeup as Allister Coetzee and company
gingerly pick up the pieces from their worst defeat in history.
Even after the gruesome 57-0 result in the Rugby Championship against New Zealand in Albany on Saturday, South
Africa do - phew, small mercies and all that - still boast the nucleus of a more
than just competent pack.
Yes, there were certain bitterly disappointing
engine-room aspects to the debacle, like the stubbornly misfiring lineout by
the visitors, but you could argue that after several outstanding showings this
season by Malcolm Marx, the hooker was entitled to a stinker in throwing-in
You also can’t summarily pin all the blame
on the No 2 (Bongi Mbonambi hardly offered greater assuredness from the 58th
minute) whenever a lineout goes so pear-shaped; organisation and timing amidst
the jumpers didn’t look too flash on the night.
In retrospect, too, wasn’t it short-sighted
of the brains trust to relegate arguably the best Bok player on the park
against Australia just a week earlier, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, back to the
There is a time-honoured principle in sport
that if an individual notably shines, he needs to be “played out” of the team
rather than instantly axed, and it just so happened that the often admirable
Franco Mostert, restored to the No 5 jersey at QBE Stadium, turned in an
unusually oomph-lacking display.
The structure and balance of the loose trio
remains a bone of some contention, too, but broadly the Boks still have the general
forward arsenal to spiritedly take on most comers.
Dreadfully humiliated and outplayed as the
Boks were on Saturday, it would be unrealistic to submit that their world has now
been utterly destroyed in 2017: for one thing, the Boks will ensure runners-up
spot in the Championship, a statistical improvement on last season, if they
bounce back to beat Australia in Bloemfontein on September 30.
Before the sobering game at North Harbour,
it could hardly be disputed that a tangible sense of progress was occurring,
with Coetzee’s charges unbeaten, up to it, in six outings, and more often than
not winning well.
Yet even as the Boks walked their path
toward redemption for the all too regular horrors of 2016, “Toetie” unfathomably
didn’t seem prepared to take appropriate steps to correct weaknesses in some
positions or combos that were becoming increasingly evident.
Where the Springboks have looked so much
more lamentably off the pace, both in collective delivery and selection terms,
is amidst the backline - and especially in the more “outside” berths where they
were near-grotesquely exposed by the All Blacks. That came as no surprise to
As a unit, the alliance of Andries Coetzee,
Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan has perplexingly been left undisturbed
throughout the year, despite looking routinely less convincing than any prior Bok
back three assembled in the post-isolation period, frankly.
On second viewing of the Albany fiasco,
Coetzee, in the last line of defence, had a slightly better outing than I gave
him credit for on Saturday, and may cling to his post for a bit longer.
But he hasn’t exactly screamed that he
belongs yet, whilst the two wings have been particularly brittle: Rhule was
lamentably bad on defence against the All Blacks, being swatted off with
contempt all too often by NZ ball-carriers, either large or smaller.
He simply has to go - this should have
happened weeks ago – and sadly so does Skosan, who hasn’t come close at the
higher level to replicating his Super Rugby sharpness for the Lions.
These two form a critical part of a broad
problem of lack of physicality in the Bok back division, something coach
Coetzee, with due respect to his more astute strides in other areas this
season, seems worryingly blinkered about.
If my appeal sounds like a dinosaur-like
one for a bunch of blunt instruments to comprise our backline, it’s emphatically
There is room for “little guys” … but for
them to thrive, a shrewd balance needs to be struck, with them able to feed off
the attention demanded by opponents to more power-based units nearby.
That’s why for every Damian McKenzie in an
All Black back three, there is also an explosive powerhouse Rieko Ioane, whilst
a reasonably pencil-like wizard named Beauden Barrett at No 10 benefits hugely
from having a tall, near-110kg Sonny Bill Williams immediately outside him.
New Zealand royally bossed collisions both
at close quarters and in wider areas of QBE Stadium, and it was almost
unedifying watching the universally quite diminutive Bok backs clinging like
tenacious leeches to various rampaging All Blacks, or simply grateful to get
someone to ground at the ankles (even as that only makes off-loading to a
supporting runner so much easier).
There’s been excessive, patently unrewarded
tolerance with the current Bok wings, and it is pointless for any cynics to
mutter “who else is there?” or words to that effect; Rhule and Skosan need to
be put out of their underachieving misery, full-stop.
They say that if you never try you’ll never
know, so the time has come to look at alternatives.
Even if not all will automatically answer
the pressing need for a few more centimetres and kilos, candidates include the
Cheetahs (and ex-Kings) prolific try-scorer Makazole Mapimpi and strong-legged
21-year-old S’bu Nkosi of the Sharks.
I suspect it would greatly benefit the
Springboks, too, if at least one of their wings was an effective “extra
fullback” - several top international sides adhere to this policy - and in that
respect decent options include crazily under-valued Ruan Combrinck and the skilful
The latter offers some much-needed flair
for the unexpected on attack - something lacking in the present Bok back
Another potentially versatile back-three
candidate is the Bulls’ elusive Warrick Gelant; Nick Mallett suggested not long
ago that he might perform just as vibrant a job in a wide berth as at his more
customary No 15, and I am inclined to agree.
If it is, indeed, finally recognised that a
bit more beef is required behind the Bok scrum, then that 109kg stick of
dynamite Rohan Janse van Rensburg reminded at an opportune time at the weekend
that he is worth drawing back into the midfield stocks; he put up a terrific
showing for the Lions in their breathless Currie Cup derby (won 36-33) against
It also seems a little bizarre that,
considering the number of proven, experienced South African names campaigning
abroad, a decidedly mediocre Francois Hougaard has been the lone one shown
strong faith in for match-day squads by Coetzee recently.
For whatever the reasons, Hougaard has long
seemed a shadow of the electric young rugby player of seven or eight years ago,
yet still made seven appearances in green and gold this season, including three
Admittedly part of the generosity of his
exposure has been down to the stop-start nature of first-choice scrumhalf Ross
Cronje’s involvement in the Test campaign due to injury or illness.
Presumably over his stomach virus by then,
the latter should be reunited with Lions franchise-mate Elton Jantjies for the
Wallabies challenge in just under a fortnight, and there is a good case for
saying Rudy Paige should at least leapfrog the erratic Hougaard in the pecking
order at scrumhalf for another crack off the bench.
If anyone thinks the incumbent Springbok
backline should remain largely undisturbed, then wow, they are in cuckoo land.
Um, you’re not, are you, Allister?
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing