Cape Town – If the Springboks announce later on Wednesday the sort of starting team anticipated for Saturday’s Castle Rugby Championship Test in Brisbane, expect the Wallabies to take keen interest in the number of Bok backline players stationed in relatively unfamiliar positions.
Build-up speculation from Australia suggests that Johan Goosen – still far more at home at flyhalf – will earn a third cap this year at fullback, Francois Hougaard fill the injury-forced wing vacancy despite his traditional greater deployment and comfort at scrumhalf, and Juan de Jongh, more commonly an outside centre in recent years, police the often busier inside channel in place of labouring Stormers colleague Damian de Allende.
For all their own woes in the current Test season, the Wallabies always back themselves to “have a go” with ball in hand and sometimes through astute attacking kicks, and will be well aware of trying to exploit any fish-out-of-water issue regarding Bok players doing service in fairly foreign berths.
Particularly in the cases of De Jongh and Hougaard - and being mindful of the injuries that preclude selection of appealing backline components like Ruan Combrinck, Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie right now - it is pretty understandable that their versatile qualities are likely to be summoned by coach Allister Coetzee for Saturday.
Alternative options within the travelling squad do not exactly leap like salmon, although there are bound to be people back home, and especially in Johannesburg, tearing their hair out over the absence of Lions midfield powerhouse and consistent 2016 standout Rohan Janse van Rensburg (remember that he was also out of service until a very recent Currie Cup comeback).
De Allende, if he is indeed sacrificed at No 12, probably needed to be put out of his misery, given that he has bafflingly lost so much of his guile and invention this year, and De Jongh has a suitable “rugby brain” to be able to pull the important strings alongside the flyhalf.
He operated with some success in that role in the year (2010) when Jean de Villiers was lost to Munster, and De Jongh’s world-class partner Jaque Fourie was at the peak of his powers at outside centre; that was also the year when the Stormers came closest yet to the Super Rugby title, losing the Soweto final to the Bulls.
Though less physical in both style and build to De Allende - so the Aussies may try to ram a “wrecking ball” or two at him on Saturday, if he does play at 12 - De Jongh does not lack tackling conviction or technique; it is his distribution qualities and general game management that may be put to a more acid test.
As for Hougaard, 21 of his 35 Test caps thus far have come at scrumhalf - either starter or replacement - though his elusive skills (remember that vital, game-changing late try from an in-field dart against Wales at the 2011 World Cup?) have been fairly liberally used before on the wing.
More recently, though, Hougaard has experienced a pleasing renaissance of sorts in his more staple berth of No 9, for Worcester Warriors in last season’s English Premiership, so he will need to be smartly back up to speed - especially in a field-positional sense - for the demands of the wider spot if given the nod there for the weekend.
Compounding the issue of Bok players currently not being used in their most suited jerseys, Goosen faces a possibly make-or-break match in the last line of defence, where he showed a curious combination of both promise and naivety in the Mbombela and Salta clashes with Argentina.
A personal inclination, especially put in the context of the rumoured “experimental” uses of both De Jongh and Hougaard, would have been to give Goosen a crack at flyhalf against the Wallabies in place of the confidence-lacking Elton Jantjies, opening up an opportunity for Jesse Kriel - so impressive at No 15 for the Bulls in his seminal 2015 year - to take care of fullback duties.
Kriel, of course, is instead being tipped for the outside centre spot (in place of Lionel Mapoe) this Saturday, opening up an additional campfire debate about his best role in a rugby team.
Let’s just say that “unsettled” seems a particularly apt description of the Springbok backline at present...
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