Cape Town – The Springboks seem to have become so obsessed with their “half-hour off the bench” men that they’ve forgotten the importance of getting aggressively on the front foot in the first two-thirds of Test matches.
Consistently healthy field position has been a problem with Allister Coetzee’s Boks for much of the season so far – culminating in last Saturday’s painful second fiddle for both possession and territory even as they eked out a flawed but much-needed victory over Australia at Loftus in the Castle Rugby Championship.
In the final analysis, they were bailed out of potential peril in no small measure by the improved go-forward they got from substitutes like Steven Kitshoff, Willem Alberts and Julian Redelinghuys; the Boks closed out the match enjoying extremely overdue doses of traction well in Wallaby territory.
Yet none of those players has been considered again for a possible start, even in Kings Park conditions against the formidable All Blacks on Saturday that may be relatively slow and grinding if rain pays a visit (as anticipated) to fickle Durban.
I may not be alone in wondering whether the Boks might have been better served by giving someone like the deserving Kitshoff, especially, a maiden crack in the No 1 jersey and an opportunity to strut his explosive stuff – as scrummager and general-play bulldozer -- for an hour rather than merely at some juncture during the second half.
Instead Coetzee stubbornly stuck at his team announcement on Thursday to the disappointing – at least by his high standards of yesteryear – Tendai Mtawarira as his starting loose-head.
If it is greasy, muddy going on Saturday, you have to wonder, too, whether Alberts, the once-revered “Bone Collector”, might have better assisted the cause battering some holes from blindside flank at close quarters early on, leaving the more mobile, athletic Oupa Mohoje to be the impact player off the bench in a horses-for-courses move.
As much as his tackle count and the solidity of some of his hits has been pretty pleasing, Mohoje is yet to thoroughly convince as a ball-carrier in a starting Bok jersey – though of course setting that right against the runaway No 1-ranked power this weekend would be a huge feather in his cap.
At least Vincent Koch remaining at No 3, with Lions anchorman Redelinghuys ready to take over some time after the break, is less contentious, by my book, as the former is a strong driver in open play and was pleasingly industrious on defence against Australia.
South Africa do, also, finally look a little more equipped for not being “bullied” in the backline (theirs is currently one of the least imposing physically of recent times) by the return of Damian de Allende to the inside centre channel with his reassuring 101kg and 1.90m frame.
Those vital statistics alone, naturally, are not an automatic passport to success against New Zealand, and a lingering concern has to be De Allende’s ongoing lack of genuine form throughout 2016.
But at least the centre combination looks more balanced, following the enforced absence through injury of Jesse Kriel, by the Stormers man donning No 12 and Juan de Jongh switching to his more traditional, comfortable station on the outside.
The Bok coach has also, despite the logistical difficulties experienced at Loftus last weekend when a variety of his backs picked up mid-combat knocks, not departed from his recently treasured 6-2 split between forwards and backs on the bench.
It does mean the hosts can, once again, offer some sturdy alternatives in the engine room in the second half against the New Zealanders.
Then again, you wouldn’t want too many substitutes to have to ride to a rescue after the horse has bolted – always a possibility against the imperious All Blacks – and if the Boks happen to fall some way behind on the scoreboard and are forced to truly “play some rugby” at advanced stages, here’s hoping Coetzee hasn’t left himself too short once again of backline reserves …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing