Cape Town – Purely on paper, it looks a satisfying, logical enough arrangement.
Duane Vermeulen unavailable for the Rugby Championship, Warren Whiteley right back in the frame for the Springboks at No 8 as he gradually recaptures his sparkle for the Lions in a late Super Rugby charge after a lengthy layoff … voila, problem nicely solved.
Or is it really that straightforward? Not quite, you could reasonably argue.
While both players are proven, Test-quality individuals and know their stuff in what is a key berth for any rugby team, they are also considerably different animals in both body shape and playing style.
So much so that a certain rebalancing of the whole loose trio may be required if the swap is, indeed, made between the two for the next challenge; the Boks open their account in the annual four-nation tournament against Argentina in Durban on August 18.
By then, Whiteley ought to be at or much closer to his prime form and fitness, having frustratingly missed large chunks of the Super Rugby ordinary season.
He has been slowly mustering a fresh head of steam in recent weeks, and leads his franchise men into battle in a quarter-final against the Jaguares in Johannesburg on Saturday.
It is a further opportunity to sharpen up his personal game -- and hopefully not quite the end of the road yet for the Lions’ title aspirations, either.
Not having tasted the green-and-gold experience again since he successfully led the national cause in the first two (of three) Tests against France in June last year, Whiteley will no doubt be seriously eager to get back into the SA picture, under Rassie Erasmus’s developing tutelage as head coach, for the Championship.
Stormers flanker Siya Kolisi, of course, has subsequently assumed the captaincy, leading a 2-1 outcome against England recently, and perhaps the skippering matter itself is best left a subject for discussion on another day.
But in specific No 8 terms, the 17-cap Whiteley naturally shapes up as an appealing candidate for the berth against the Pumas at Kings Park, given Vermeulen’s confirmed absence from Test duty until later Bok challenges.
For known quality in his own right, he alleviates a lot of the nervousness that would have accompanied the Vermeulen “no Championship” revelation, considering how monumental the big, bruising figure had been in securing the England series.
Whiteley, though, sports a more roaming, faster-paced hallmark as his primary mode of play, as you might expect of a man whose tale of the tape is so different.
Where Vermeulen tips the scales at some 116-118kg of prime, abrasive-at-close-quarters beef, the cerebral Lions favourite comes in at much closer the 100kg-mark, further indicating his career-long preferred contribution in clever running lines, linking, jinking and general lightness on his feet.
Their differences are such that Erasmus will be the first to know that an automatic switch between the two – something that, yes, smart money and common sense suggests will probably happen – does mean a deeper think about the broad structure of the Bok loosie alliance.
Vermeulen was truly the “chief enforcer” physically in the pack against the English, only confirming how much enduring value he has to the SA cause in the gradual lead-up to, and then very much into, the 2019 World Cup.
When he does become available again, hopefully for end-of-year purposes, the former Stormers and Toulon star may well find a comfortable home at blindside flank for South Africa if Whiteley looks the part again back in the eighth-man role (the latter is less transferable within the loose trio).
For the moment, though, a restoration of Whiteley, for Vermeulen, specifically at eight might require Erasmus to especially ensure that both of his flankers tick the box for pure confrontational zest and power in places where the sun doesn’t always shine.
For example, if the Boks suddenly felt a need to field a specialist, speedy, low-centre-of-gravity open-sider like a Kwagga Smith, which would mean the relatively “light-heavyweight” (but often suitably bone-crunching nevertheless) Kolisi moving back to blindside, whether such a trio also involving Whiteley would cut it collectively in the mongrel stakes is open to some questioning.
Kolisi is not an out-and-out fetcher in the classical sense, so there are risks at times that the Boks get outwitted in the pilfering and ball-slowing battle, although a personal belief is that No 6 remains his best possible posting for the Boks, especially if the hooker – whoever it is – is pulling his weight significantly as a stealer too.
If Whiteley comes back into the No 8 role soon, immediately stripping some kilos from the greater Bok forward unit, it probably deepens the likelihood that Erasmus only extends his recent penchant for fielding the strapping, near-120kg Pieter-Steph du Toit, still more accustomed to lock but making solid strides at seven now, on the side of the scrum.
Du Toit operated there with considerable aplomb in both of the last two Tests against Eddie Jones’s charges; Whiteley shifting into the No 8 role would increase his chances, whether he fancies it or not, of staying as the human railway sleeper on the blindside.
Of course, it also needs to be borne in mind that Vermeulen and Whiteley also don’t differ TOO violently: both are truly top-notch factors at the back of the lineout, so no realignment thoughts necessary there …
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