Cape Town – Erratic, illogical, sometimes panicky selection habits by Allister Coetzee, an area he normally excelled at in his Super Rugby years with the Stormers, were frequently touted as key shortcomings during the Springboks’ awful 2016.
So has the national coach returned to questionable ways – after signs of pulling things together more judiciously in the France series – with his 34-man squad for the first couple of rounds of the Castle Rugby Championship?
I am just inclined to fear he has, though with a more positive proviso: the all-important starting XV could still be a good, competitive one if chosen wisely, and that is naturally a cause for considerable redemption and comfort.
It is more the back-up personnel, if you like, who generally fail to inspire. Or read: who come up short in too many instances on the hardly unimportant grounds of persuasively consistent form.
You just pick up an unedifying sense of “floating debris” on the squad’s fringes, a phenomenon that could yet come to haunt Coetzee in his quest – and you can sure it will be a desperate one – to improve markedly on last year’s Championship performance (played six, won two, and third-place finish in the quartet).
Certainly if injuries were to suddenly afflict core components of the side, the Boks could be scraping the barrel for really compelling replacements in some positions.
Even one tier down, during the Super Rugby 2017 campaign, can you honestly venture that the likes of Bongi Mbonambi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Oupa Mohoje, Handre Pollard (at least it’s acknowledged he is still rehabbing), Trevor Nyakane and Damian de Allende produced the type of rugby that absolutely screamed “pick me” at the very highest level?
Admittedly one or two of those have previously proved beyond doubt that they do cut it in the international arena when at their best … but “best” has been a worryingly elusive hallmark more recently amidst such players, even if injuries have been a factor in specific instances.
Similarly, how did once-dynamic Francois Hougaard, who has looked sub-standard at Test level for a long time and was desperately disappointing when he filled in for injured Ross Cronje in the final Test against France, come to be the lone pick in the party from overseas clubs?
On that topic, does everyone buy into the spin – “it’s in his best interest to have a good (European) pre-season” -- around the non-selection of that long-time stormy petrel Frans Steyn?
He got some reasonably fitful exposure as a substitute during the France series, but if his rich experience wasn’t going to be employed in the main event of the rugby year for the Boks, what was really the point?
Steyn is a physically imposing character and the one thing Coetzee appears to have undervalued is the need for that in at least a few of your backline spots; his wing resources look particularly light-framed and defensively suspect.
He could do a lot worse – and just possibly it is the plan – than give the recently in-form young Bulls fullback and first-time Bok pick Warrick Gelant a crack in one of the wide berths, as he does not lack pace or elusiveness and his 88kg body makes him acceptably proportioned in weight terms.
Raymond Rhule is the incumbent No 14, for instance, but the Cheetahs flier, strongly linked with a move to the Western Cape, failed to convince in tackle situations or for positional play in the French series, despite his known X-factor on the front foot.
The Boks are definitely going to be fielding a different tighthead at the start of the Championship after the decision to omit Lions No 3 Ruan Dreyer altogether from the latest squad; he was the starter against France in Johannesburg but the way may be clear instead for a recall for the 17-cap Frans Malherbe.
Players who can consider themselves unlucky to be overlooked at this stage – in fairness, Coetzee says changes can be made as the tournament progresses – include Ruan Combrinck, either of Lions inside centres Harold Vorster and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lukhanyo Am, Thomas du Toit, Wilco Louw and perhaps even that amazingly impactful front-row athlete in open play Ox Nche.
Suggested Bok starting XV against Argentina in Port Elizabeth, August 19:
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Warrick Gelant, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Dan du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth (capt), 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (subject to fitness test).
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