Cape Town – Besieged Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, selection policy still a major bone of contention in his teetering tenure, has come up with at least some redeemable qualities in his latest match-day 23.
But he also won’t scramble entirely out of the woods from his many critics as a certain paralysis continues to grip him, it seems, over certain positions – most notably in regularly sub-standard ones among the backs.
It is little short of bewildering, really, that the back division for the Test against limited Italy in Padova was wholly retained in the team announcement on Thursday, despite looking so glaringly like the weak link in the ugly victory over France last Saturday.
In another broad Bok selection which suggests only that Coetzee is crouching in a personal laager -- at the expense of much-needed experimentation with longer-term goals in mind -- the only two alterations to the starting line-up against the 13th-ranked Italians are two enforced ones in the pack.
Nevertheless, one bit of laudable wisdom is the decision not to risk first-choice hooker Malcolm Marx -- despite the suggestion (by interpretation of Coetzee’s words in the official release) that he might have bitten the bullet had the Boks been playing stronger foes.
The rugged No 2 has been nursing a shoulder problem and clearly the hope will be that skipping Italy means he will be rested and recharged for the trickier tour finale against Wales.
Although not by design, it appears, the development leads to the constructive facilitation of a maiden start for Bongi Mbonambi, the smaller but spirited Stormers man who ends a sequence of a dozen caps as a substitute to be able to show his worth from the outset.
Mbonambi was in excellent form in the knockout phase of Western Province’s surge to the Currie Cup title a few weeks ago, and there is no special reason to fear he will under-deliver here, even if Marx’s rare gifts in physicality and sometimes Superman-like abilities over the ball at rucks will be missed.
With Siya Kolisi having returned home temporarily for paternity reasons, there is also no reason to quibble over the now concussion-free Pieter-Steph du Toit slotting back in at blindside flank – another policy by the head coach that has yielded some more than satisfactory fruit recently.
With a sturdy, no-nonsense loose trio featuring Francois Louw, Du Toit and Duane Vermeulen, it will be a surprise if the Bok forwards as a collective are somehow bashed around by the Italian eight; it should be comfortably the other way around.
That said, purists might mutter that there is no real speed merchant among them, and the absence of Kolisi’s linking skills, deft offloads and willingness to maraud in wide channels will also have to be compensated for in other ways.
By far the more vexing issue, however, is the fact that this Springbok backline division continues to look alarmingly like the least exciting or incisive of the post-isolation era – it is defensively anything but watertight, either -- and Coetzee steadfastly doesn’t appear to see all that.
Francois Venter was competent – and we’ll bank competent, frankly -- at inside centre in his return to the Test fray against France, but almost every other berth behind the scrum is under very tenuous command indeed.
The coach’s insistence, especially, in keeping lingering faith with Andries Coetzee (fullback), Courtnall Skosan (left wing) and technically-challenged outside centre Jesse Kriel will only enrage many of his detractors.
Why he will not at least explore other options in those flat-lining berths is quite mystifying, and hardly helping his shaky levels of security at his taxing post.
OK, there is just a hint of acknowledgement that things may – I’d prefer to say do! – need shaking up among the back three, through the welcome summoning of slippery Bulls attacker Warrick Gelant to a spot among the reserves this weekend.
The former Junior Bok star could introduce thrust either from the last line of defence or one of the wing positions, but don’t get your hopes of generous exposure in Padova too high; that may only happen if the tourists have opened up significant daylight on the scoreboard already.
Or, heaven forbid, if they have some embarrassing rear-guard action to do in the last quarter?
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