Cape Town - It’s an invitation to prove me
well wide of the mark, and the Australians’ own insecurity has to be factored
in as a beacon for hope on Saturday, but the latest Springbok starting XV has a
palpably pot-luck feel to it.
Far from looking like a combo beginning to
gel after five Tests under the tutelage of the Allister Coetzee regime, I have
an inescapable thought that the wallpaper is instead peeling; that the Boks may
even be flirting with a lurch back toward the indecisiveness and results trauma
of the Rudolf Straeuli era.
In defence of the personable head coach,
his 2016 charges haven’t yet shown major signs of unravelling in scoreboard
terms – remember they haven’t run into any real global heavyweight yet; that’s
a further week up the line – to the nauseating extent some Straeuli teams did.
The wretched 3-53 against England at
Twickenham in 2002 and 16-52 against the All Blacks at Loftus a few months
later rapidly induce shivers.
There have been no outcomes remotely like
those ... yet. When the Boks have lost (Ireland at Newlands, Argentina at Salta)
they’ve been close, though all three victories this year have also been of the nerve-wracking,
If little else, the present Boks do boast a
certain grim tenacity, although such qualities are not guaranteed to be
sustainable when more desirable ones - such as consistent territorial
dominance, physical mastery, skill, guile and a clear game-plan - are so
difficult to meaningfully detect.
Is there any compelling reason to feel
optimistic that the Boks, sporting a particularly reshuffled, makeshift-looking
backline for this Castle Rugby Championship date (Brisbane, 12:05 SA time), are
suddenly on the cusp of clicking?
I just feel that the starting XV - still
featuring a mystifying tally of customers who have underwhelmed for all or very
generous chunks of the Test season thus far -- shows some “repairs” in wrong
areas which might only cloud matters further, rather than provide overdue
shafts of sunlight.
Elton Jantjies, Francois Louw, Tendai
Mtawarira, the captain Adriaan Strauss ... all of these are potentially
influential internationals, but have flat-lined stubbornly on a low level this
year. The experienced last-named trio have particularly disappointed at a time
when they should be showing certain novices the way, whilst the complex Jantjies
exudes only doubt-laden body language in the key flyhalf berth.
In fairness to Coetzee, he deserves some
salaams for his patient perseverance with the Lions pivot: but if ever there
was a need for Jantjies to finally transfer his Super Rugby form and talent to
the Test arena, that time is surely now – or arguably even should have expired
a fortnight back in Argentina?
The dogged retention of Louw, Mtawarira and
the now known want-away Strauss is well less fathomable, as sprightly alternatives
like Jaco Kriel and Steven Kitshoff remain curtailed to the bench. Meanwhile,
and at the risk of sounding like a tired old drum, that confrontational competitor
and herculean breakdown and mauling workhorse Bismarck du Plessis remains
ignored at his distant French base.
There are others on the substitutes list
for Saturday who I feel should instead be starting; they include Pieter-Steph
du Toit and Lionel Mapoe.
It is true that the latter has not exactly
grasped his outside centre opportunities with both hands, including making one
or two critical, Bok try-denying errors, but he has also paid a cruel price now
for the lack of imagination and direction from berths inside him that have done
him no favours.
Mapoe needs to be cork-screwed cleverly through
gaps; those holes simply haven’t been chiselled out for him, only dulling his major
But if the Lions midfielder has had a raw
deal, even worse, by my estimation, applies to Vincent Koch, the explosive
tighthead prop who, only two matches after he provided major value at
Nelspruit, suddenly finds himself surplus to match-day requirements entirely.
Instead Lourens Adriaanse, though seldom regularly
commanding the Sharks’ No 3 jersey since his switch there from Bloemfontein
three seasons back, has earned a dubiously meteoric rise to a maiden start – he
is nothing like as effective as Koch as a ball-carrier and even his scrumming,
frankly, may be earning stronger salutes from some sources than he actually
Bok front-row mediocrity had been coming
far more routinely from loosehead prop and hooker during 2016. Instead the bag
has been vigorously shaken at tighthead; go figure.
I also have a nasty suspicion that South
Africa are in proper trouble if, perish the thought, the specialist Adriaanse
were to suffer an early injury at Suncorp Stadium ... for all his potential as he
is gently groomed for the cares of the “right shoulder” side of the scrum, when
last did Trevor Nyakane, not always the best-conditioned of behemoths, get
through even an hour of competitive rugby?
Meanwhile, in hardly the finest signal that
the Boks are truly desirous of a brave new attacking template, they have named
a bench featuring only two back-liners - and one of them is Morne Steyn, not
exactly a renowned thrill-factor option if the national side find themselves requiring
late daredevil to force a victory.
While the presence of gratifying surnames
like Etzebeth, Habana and one or two others points otherwise (and there is regrettable
absence through injury of players like Messrs Vermeulen, Malherbe, Lambie,
Pollard and Combrinck), a year or so ago I would have been deeply tempted to assume
that the Bok XV named for this date for the Wallabies actually veers closer in
character toward some sort of SA ‘A’ side.
If they play like one on Saturday, maybe even
the near-abject Aussies will eke out this one …
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing