Cape Town – Noticeably poor performances or even just going
through the motions in specific games are going to prove increasingly costly
for Springbok loose forwards from now onward to the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
We are inside the last two years of build-up to the next
premier global tournament, which begins on September 20 that year, so planning
for it naturally intensifies from here.
The Boks are in significantly greater disarray at coaching
level than they would like, with Allister Coetzee clinging by a fraying string
to his senior position, and inevitable talk of significant changes in the 2018
Test season when Rassie Erasmus gets stuck in more fully to his Director of
But that shouldn’t too hugely affect the clamour among
players to get into line for spots in the RWC squad, and one place where the
tradition of fierce South African positional competition is rapidly being
restored is at loose forward.
The situation only hotted up last weekend when known
heavyweight figure Duane Vermeulen made his pretty successful comeback after a
long absence – some 17 months - to the No 8 berth against France.
The 31-year-old did enough in the slugged-out Paris victory
to suggest that his appetite for international rugby remains suitably strong,
and that he clearly earmarks a probable swansong World Cup in the Far East.
Immediately, too, that situation poses the red-letter
question: what is the ongoing status of currently injury-rehabbing incumbent
Warren Whiteley as first-choice captain?
The Lions skipper is expected back at his franchise-level post
for the start of Super Rugby 2018, and for a brief period while the Boks
sparkled in June (the home series against France) this year and he was still
fit, Whiteley led admirably -- and from the front.
But is he even still earmarked for the national captaincy, when
Erasmus takes greater charge of things, ahead of the important 2018 June series
against England on our soil?
Whiteley and Vermeulen both sport fine leadership
credentials, but they are very different beasts at eighth-man in playing style,
with the former a more mobile stepper and playmaker, and the latter famed for
his ton-of-bricks physicality.
Nevertheless, it will just be positive for the Bok cause
next year if they have both men available for a specialist berth that has had
to be filled by makeshift customers recently like Francois Louw and Uzair
Cassiem, both more familiar with the side of the scrum.
If Whiteley keeps the captaincy into next year, it will open
up very feasible possibilities for Vermeulen (his 118kg, 1.93m frame extremely
suitable) to operate at blindside flank, where he began his Stormers career –
Luke Watson was the captain and No 8 at the time – and with plenty of aplomb.
By extension under that scenario, the No 7 jersey becomes an
increasingly compelling duel as well, given the presence also of such healthy
counter-options as 22-year-old Sharks powerhouse Jean-Luc du Preez (10 Bok caps
thus far, usually as an impact presence), Cassiem and now the increasingly
versatile Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Only this week, in the lead-up to the Italy Test, Bok
assistant coach Matt Proudfoot was talking up Du Toit as a possible
legend-in-the-making at flank, suggesting he had both the physical presence and
range of skills to match the likes of Gert Smal, Theuns Stofberg and Juan Smith
But then there’s also the vexing – again - Siya Kolisi
matter: is he slowly being remodelled back to a “seven” role?
I thought he played some of his best ever Test rugby earlier
this season when he operated at open-side.
But with Coetzee also being seduced into restoring
Bath-based veteran Louw to his favoured frontline fetcher berth (No 6) more
recently, Kolisi changed to the other side against France and fared well enough
despite not being the biggest unit to grace a No 7 shirt.
It helps when you have a figure like Vermeulen offering
brawny aggression at No 8, and many pundits lauded the balance of the loose
trio against France, with Louw at six, Kolisi seven and Vermeulen at
Should the more rangy, lighter-weight Whiteley eventually be
restored to No 8, however, then Kolisi staying at blind-side becomes a more
contentious issue all over again: would the Boks have enough grunt in their
loose trio under such circumstances?
A future for Whiteley as No 8 and skipper suggests to me
that Kolisi would instead be challenging more again for the stealer spot, along
with Louw and, next year, genuine tearaway factors like the Lions duo of Jaco
Kriel (once back in action) and Kwagga Smith.
Kriel is another versatile factor who could serve blindside,
as well as his more familiar No 6, if the eighth-man is a bruiser like
Vermeulen and the fetcher is also a forceful carrier and mauler.
But there’s also still that multi-talented loose forward
Marcell Coetzee of Ulster to consider, once he is back from own, further injury
Big-hearted former Sharks workaholic Coetzee is still only
26 and already possesses 28 Test caps; he is a valuable “squad” man because he
arguably offers viable cover in all three loosie berths.
Come 2018, the Springboks should find that they are really spoilt
for choice – in what would be a firm revisit of a once-proud trend – in those
There is little luxury left for any “slackers” at loose
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing