Rugby Championship

Why Bok backline needs a big guy!

2017-08-23 14:00
Frans Steyn (Gallo)

The Springboks have sent a message to the world that South African rugby is on the rise again, says Mark Keohane.

Cape Town – There is much to like about the current Springbok backline.

Helped to a key extent by the blossoming at last of Elton Jantjies as an assertive international flyhalf, which has positive implications for all those outside him, the Bok back division have certainly played their part in the revitalised start to their 2017 Test campaign.

The Boks have four very comfortable wins from four outings, having dotted four tries each time: without having to be a maths boffin, it makes for a pleasing sort of statistical symmetry, doesn’t it?

Nine of those 16 dot-downs have come from the ranks of backline players, and the Bok concession rate in the try column isn’t too bad, either, with six surrendered at an average of 1.5 per match.

Along the way, we have seen evidence of massively sharper play strategically on attack than witnessed in dark 2016, including deft collective hand-skills – not just by backs, mind -- and appreciation of space in the lead-up to several scores.

So why do I, for one, still harbour a niggling concern over the Springbok backline, as a broad entity, as attention soon turns – after the tricky enough return encounter against Argentina in Salta on Saturday - to the demands of playing old foes Australia and New Zealand?

It is based primarily around a suspicion that the current first-choice Bok backs, if still picked largely en masse as the Rugby Championship develops, will struggle to tick the box for physicality as bigger rival units run – quite literally at times - into them.

That fear is not so much based around desire or courage-related reservations for the challenge, as it is the sheer “tale of the tape” aspects when they tackle the Australasian foes.

Like it or not, rugby is every bit as physically confrontational a game as it has ever been, particularly with defences so obsessively, rigidly structured, and if there is easy-on-the-eye linking play or solo artistry in the lead-up to a try, it is so often only because a crucial collision or even sequence of them ahead of the move has been won.

Against this backdrop, I would venture that the present Bok back division is more lightweight and low-timber on a group basis than it has been for many years.

That is not to say that backlines need to be comprehensively monopolised by “brutes” … not to my way of thinking, anyway.

But one or two? You bet; their associated, diversionary role should never be undervalued in how the littler guys, if you like, are empowered to get through gaps or into blissful, wide-open real estate.

That is why the present All Blacks team, for example, are comfortable fielding both Damian McKenzie and Ben Smith amongst their back three – neither is even remotely Lomu-like in physique, but hot steppers and impressively inventive and elusive.

And why do (or at least can) they thrive?

It is almost undoubtedly because, elsewhere on the park but seldom too far away, are altogether brawnier co-backs, importantly sucking in or at very least severely stressing defenders, like the sometimes heavyweight boxer Sonny Bill Williams (1.94m, 108kg), Rieko Ioane (1.89m, 102kg) and the more modest-in-height but immensely strong, 96kg Ryan Crotty.

Someone like Anton Lienert-Brown off the bench is no shrinking violet in one-on-one encounters, either.

Ioane scored one try in the corner during the 54-34 Sydney drubbing of the Aussies on Saturday where his raw strength was almost certainly instrumental in ensuring he got over, rather than was bundled desperately into touch. 

As the for Wallabies, they may be a pretty troubled lot as a team these days, but it is not due to any special shortcomings in physical terms amidst their backs, whose ranks (either starter or substitute) include seasoned fullback Israel Folau (103kg), rookie wing Curtis Rona (102kg), Samu Kerevi (105kg), Tevita Kuridrani (102kg) and Henry Speight (98kg).

Will the Boks be able to counter such widespread muscularity, come the remaining four Championship obligations after Salta?

It is going to be a mighty challenge, as there is no genuinely tall, strapping character in their backline midst, especially when it comes to their halfback pairing – those custodians must police busy, often unforgiving channels – and the back three.

There is limited value to harping on about the past, but it wasn’t too many years ago that the Boks offered some stout physical artillery of their own in the backline, when a young, fit Handre Pollard was making his early strides in a Test shirt at flyhalf, Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende and a bit before that Jaque Fourie had a suitably “panoramic” view of the field of combat in midfield given their healthy height, and at least one wing berth was manned by big-striding JP Pietersen (1.90m, 106kg).

Recent Toulon signing (from Leicester) Pietersen remains unused by the Boks this year, even though at just-turned 31 he is hardly an old crock of note and could yet, I quite devoutly believe, act as an important balancer in a Bok backline with his imposing frame.

It also seemed a little peculiar that oft-controversial Frans Steyn was briefly deployed during the French series in June, but then “released” to pre-season requirements in Europe instead of his experience and unusually hefty, utility-offering proportions being drawn into even closer usage for the loftier demands of the Championship.

As much as they have played the best ball-in-hand rugby on the planet for several years, New Zealand are far more conscious than many people realise - or give credit for - of kicking intelligently and frequently for offensive purposes.

Head coach Steve Hansen and his lieutenants will be far from unaware that the current Bok backline staff possess few outright muscle-men, and that middleweight incumbent wings Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule, especially, are traditionally far happier running with the ball than contesting for it aerially in tight, sometimes violent areas or trying to bump out a rampaging opposition carrier near the corner flag.

Somewhere between jerseys 10 and 15, I feel Allister Coetzee will need to post at least one beefier or taller (or both) specimen, come the next few weeks.

It is a pity neither of Pietersen or Steyn are at his immediate calling.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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