Cape Town – The World Cup-winning Springboks’ now famous “Bomb Squad” has a key loose-forward vacancy in 2020.
More precisely, the considerable gap left by now-retired Francois Louw will need to be filled.
The 34-year-old Louw has been a dream presence on the splinters for headline matches – and had his share of deserved starts against certain foes, too – during Rassie Erasmus’s two years as head coach, including an invaluable role for impact purposes during the charge toward the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan.
He was increasingly suited to and confident in all three loosie berths at Test level, which is not something every player can boast, while experience that eventually amounted to 76 caps in his case also hardly grows on trees.
So identifying the best possible - and ideally most versatile - replacement for him in a Bok match-day 23 will be a vital task for Erasmus (specialising now in his director of rugby capacity) and whoever is named as new head coach as they gradually plot the world champions’ 2020 international campaign.
While the chief mastermind will also keep a beady eye on developments at loose forward among the four South African franchises in Super Rugby from late January – the country traditionally churns out quality new loose forwards with ease - Erasmus has also shown a strong trend in developing consistency in selection and a clear pecking order within the current, extended Bok squad.
On that basis, it seems to make sense that all of Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith, Rynhardt Elstadt and Marcell Coetzee will be at the forefront of the race, as things stand.
All of them earned varying bits of exposure under Erasmus’s watch in 2019, even if only Smith, of the quartet, made it to the World Cup.
While uncertainty surrounds whether ace, stirringly abrasive eighth-man Duane Vermeulen (33) will stick around for another year or two – possibly to the British and Irish Lions tour here of 2021 – the two starting flank positions seem fairly locked, understandably, in the hands of captain Siya Kolisi and the newly-crowned World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit.
But at very least, an opportunity looms next season for someone to stick up a hand as a regular, new presence in Louw’s former capacity as the primary loose-forward substitute.
Physically, all of Bulls-based dynamo Van Staden, Toulouse’s Elstadt and Ulster’s Coetzee come closest to Louw in make-up, adding good force as carriers, tacklers and maul participants, and willing to gets hands dirtied and their shoulders rattled at the breakdown.
The 24-year-old (so attractively future-geared) Van Staden has the extra advantage in 2020, perhaps, of being that bit more “visible” on a regular basis to Erasmus and company through his presence in Super Rugby while the other two slug it out mainly on more distant European fields.
That said, the presence of the Cheetahs and Kings in the PRO14 – also involving Coetzee’s Irish club – has meant increased awareness of that competition in our part of the world.
Former Sharks marauder Coetzee, 28, has two potential advantages over the other two, one being that (like Louw) he has solid claims to all three loose forward berths, and another that his Test pedigree is already well known and impressive through 30 appearances in green and gold.
He is also still young enough, really, to overcome the injury jinx that has tended to stalk him, especially in Test-level terms: any hope of cracking the RWC squad, for example, was thwarted when he left the field with an ankle problem after only 16 minutes of the Loftus Test against Argentina before the global tournament – he had been chosen by Erasmus as the No 8 that day, a role Louw has also occupied at times this year.
But if the Bok brains trust are keen on something a little different (or read: smaller, pacier) as their chief loose forward “impact” man in 2020 and beyond, then the claims of Lions tearaway and sometimes SA Sevens representative Smith certainly stay right on the table.
While he is arguably yet to put in a genuinely wowing Test performance from start to finish, the more diminutive, and well below 100kg Smith now sports six caps.
All of the 26-year-old’s appearances have come in Erasmus’s tenure, too, which seems to say something … it includes five this year and two at the World Cup, albeit starts both times against minnow nations Namibia and Canada.
While he offers pleasing attributes both as an open-side fetcher/linker and No 8, he would not fit as seamlessly into the classical blindside role usually occupied by more of a bruising, taller-timber “enforcer”.
Still, it is very much open season shortly for contenders for the Francois Louw Bok function …
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