Rugby Championship

Bok loosies: Major rebalance required

2018-08-27 12:32
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Getty)

Cape Town - Francois Louw and Warren Whiteley flirting with the chop, captain Siya Kolisi needing to lift his game by turning his fitful brilliance into more consistent oomph.

That hardly seems an unreasonable or over-dramatic statement about the Springbok loose forwards following the fiasco in Mendoza, does it?

Normally such an area of strength in South African rugby, the last two games - both against Argentina, and even though one was a comfortable enough victory - have demonstrated a rare phenomenon: that department looking a bit too much like an Achilles’ Heel.

All of the current trio are, or at very least have been, indisputably fine players, occasionally even majestic in their individual capacities at the game’s premier level.

But it seems painfully obvious, as attention turns to the challenge of Australia in Brisbane in less than a fortnight, that a significant rearrangement is going to be required to the back row, including a casualty or two, for the next hurdle in the Rugby Championship.

The Boks being glaringly outmuscled and outwitted at the breakdowns and in general collisional play against the Pumas at the weekend went a long way to confirming that the present “parts” simply don’t amount to the correct “whole” as a loosie alliance.

While the pack as a unit must take responsibility for not rising properly to the physical challenge on Saturday - and perhaps being seduced too much by the clever-tactic “aura of invincibility” Pumas coach Mario Ledesma touted them as having, after the Kings Park match - it was all too clear once more that the loose trio struggles to muster enough in the way of pure grunt.

It is not all you need, of course, and there will always a good case for a swift, “skills” player in the midst, but the biggest structural problem, as I see it, is Kolisi as the blindsider and Whiteley as his eighth-man just not cutting it enough for venom as a duo.

The Boks, remember, made a reluctant, major sacrifice when ton-of-bricks No 8 Duane Vermeulen ruled himself out of the Rugby Championship after being instrumental with his earthy, bulldozing qualities in sealing the England series during June.

Whiteley (and this is not a fault!) is an altogether different type of eighth-man both in physique and philosophy, really, and for him to prosper with his more scheming, stepping sort of game he ideally needs a brawny specimen to play off as his “seven”.

It so happens that as the popular Lions skipper returned very recently to the Bok fray after an injury-dictated absence of 14 months, coach Rassie Erasmus simultaneously took the decision to switch his captain, Kolisi, back from the open-side to blindside.

Debate may well rage career-long about exactly which of the two roles the Stormers man is more suited to. The mix of his skill-set and essentially more cruiserweight (around 103-105kg) than heavyweight “tale of the tape” means he falls somewhere in between - and a personal preference has almost always been for him to wear No 6.

By posting Kolisi at seven with Whiteley as his No 8, you have two men who revel in a genuine gallop in open play, sometimes freer of the more grinding responsibilities closer in, but look that bit too ill-equipped collectively for creating team go-forward by sucking in more defenders to stop them.

I firmly believe that Whiteley, for example, would prosper a lot more by having a hefty, instinctively no-frills unit at No 7: perhaps the kind of player with the physical proportions to be able to grace either the second or back row, like a Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert or Willem Alberts (still active for Stade Francais, remember him?).

The Sharks’ Jean-Luc du Preez falls into the category of specialist muscular, robust No 7, too, although he will be laid low for several weeks now by injury, so currently unavailable to Erasmus.

By the same token, Kolisi could be more impactful as a seven if his No 8 was instead a Vermeulen or Dan du Preez sort of specimen, adding significantly to the general pack physicality.

As stated last week, quality, 28-cap Bok customer Marcell Coetzee (sadly injury-jinxed in recent times but ready for a fresh start with Ulster now) is worth monitoring very closely in the early stages of the imminent PRO14: he has a fine combination of energy, mobility and mongrel at his best and offers possibilities in all three loosie jerseys.

Of the three incumbents, veteran Louw arguably warrants being under deepest scrutiny over retention: he somehow looks off the pace, although having come out of the UK off-season has hardly been a help to him in the last fortnight.

He may yet sharpen up to more agreeable levels, though some would say it’s too late.

With the resources he has most immediately available (there are various injuries/unavailable players), Erasmus might be well advised to look at either of these combos for better loose-forward balance against the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium:

If insistent on keeping Kolisi at blindside: No 6 Francois Louw/Marco van Staden, No 7 Kolisi, No 8 Dan du Preez.

If willing to restore Kolisi to open-side: No 6 Kolisi, No 7 Du Toit, No 8 Whiteley (or possibly Louw).

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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