Cardiff - When it comes time to look back on a year that perhaps every South African rugby fan would rather forget, it could well be an area of accepted Springbok strength during the past decade that will emerge as one of the crucial weak spots that kept the team back.
It’s not so much the identity of the players who have slotted into the loose-trio positions that has been problematic, but the balance of a back row that has been changed several times over the course of the season and which remains a headache for coach Alllister Coetzee heading into the last test against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.
The last two weeks have brought the dilemma that Coetzee faces and which has blighted the team sharply into focus. Against England the absence of a specialist openside flanker saw the hulking Willem Alberts thrust into the No6 jersey, with Pieter-Steph du Toit moving from lock to the blindside flank.
It was perhaps a necessary gamble for Coetzee given the resources he was sitting with at the time and given the make-up of the England team. Du Toit could certainly make the grade as a No7. It was a position he played early in his career at the Sharks and he has the athleticism and the other qualities.
But the impressive Stormers star hadn’t played there for a while when he took the field at Twickenham, and that was what was exposed when England scrumhalf Ben Youngs sold him two dummies that led to two tries that made him the subject of ridicule in the London newspapers the next day. Alberts put in some big tackles and was quite prominent in the early stages of the game, when the Boks were solid, but effectively the Boks had a back row with too many players out of position.
The Boks had a player ostensibly out of position in the most recent match, which was the abject loss to Italy in Florence, but Nizaam Carr has played No6 often for Western Province and the Stormers. It was his ability to play both openside and No8 that saw him selected to join the test match part of the tour after the injury to Jaco Kriel.
The problem with Carr though is that he is not exactly the most physical player, and neither is No8 Warren Whiteley. Both of them are really happiest when they can operate as linkers and runners, with the other loose-forwards fulfilling the tighter more bruising roles that are required.
As he nears the end of his first full season of international rugby – he only played as back-up under the previous Bok coach – Whiteley remains an enigma. There was a lot of hot air expended on the airwaves and social media on his right to be the first choice No8 and possibly captain based on his excellent performances in Super Rugby, but he hasn’t really delivered on that promise.
That could though be down to several factors, one being the game-plan that differs quite markedly at Bok level to the one he thrives on with the Lions, or the fact that weaknesses elsewhere in the back-row unit are forcing him to play a lot tighter than he does at the Lions. There are times it looks like he has to become an extra openside, and last week was an example.
Duane Vermeulen, who was first injured and then became unavailable and was Whiteley’s predecessor in the position, is being missed for his ability to play too the ball and perhaps the Lions No8 is suffering because of it.
What is certain is that while Vermeulen was considered expendable by many when he started the year in iffish form against Ireland, it is not the case now. Apart from his playing to the ball, so much of the Boks’ physical presence at the back of the scrum revolved around Vermeulen’s powerful and robust presence, and he was a talisman for those around him too. The now Toulon based player is a player who sets examples others follow.
But there is doubt over whether Vermeulen will be back, and he definitely won’t be back for the Millennium Stadium test, where the injury that has made Alberts a doubtful selection has introduced the exciting possibility of Jean-Luc du Preez being introduced as the starting blindside flank.
The Sharks player, like his twin brother, is one of the few freakishly talented South African youngsters that could still make the future a bright one, and he is the sort of player who once he is given a chance, may make the position his own.
There now appears to be an acceptance by the coaching staff that while Oupa Mohoje has ability, he doesn’t really fit into the prototype of a Bok blindside flank. Du Preez does, as indeed does a man who has been forgotten because he left the country at a young age, Jacques du Plessis.
With Alberts at No7 last week, the Boks appear to be moving back to the accepted balance of a Bok back row, that is if you disregard the question marks over having Carr and Whiteley in the same back row.
For his part, assistant coach Matt Proudfoot appears to think that Carr can grow into the role if required to.
“I thought Nizaam played well. We were caught on a wet field, which led to problems with the contact situation and our intention to improve on our good scrumming performance against England, and that was frustrating, but I thought Nizaam delivered a busy performance,” said Proudfoot.
“I do want an improvement in his contact skills and he knows that. We worked hard on it at training today I have worked with Nizaam for a long time and know that he is a fighter, like a couple of years ago when he got sick, lost 10 kilograms and then came back after that and still had a great season. There was a bit of rust last week, but given an opportunity I know he will get better.”
That may be so, but somehow a loose-trio with Carr on the flank and Whiteley at No8, even with a strong blindside flank like Du Preez in it, just looks incongruous. And the same could be said for different reasons for the Francois Louw, Mohoje and Whiteley combination that preceded it in the Rugby Championship season.
The tight forward unit has had its positive moments this year, so the road to Bok redemption might well lie in getting the back row configuration right.
Read the story on SuperSport.com