Bok team: No pressure, Warren!

2018-11-01 17:45
Warren Whiteley (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - You could almost put it literally that Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has moved mountains to re-accommodate Warren Whiteley in his latest starting XV to play England at Twickenham on Saturday.

Those considerable, shifted chunks of granite are Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

If you had to name a few most salient features of the 10-match Bok season so far, one would be Vermeulen’s stirring comeback to the green and gold jersey at eighth-man in the 2-1 home series triumph over the very same England in June where, if we drag out the geological theme, he was simply a colossal presence.

Another? Most certainly the successful conversion, on a regular basis, of versatile pack member Du Toit to the cares of blindside flank; he has delivered a series of thunderous performances.

So you could be excused if you raised your eyebrows just a little on Thursday when it was confirmed by the national team’s mastermind that speedy Lions skipper Whiteley would run out in his most familiar berth again, after a two-Test absence through injury, in the Boks’ European tour opener at “Twickers” (17:00 SA time).

Many observers might have had good reason to believe Erasmus would immediately restore, instead, the globally-revered powerhouse Vermeulen to No 8 for another opportunity to torment the English this year, after being unavailable for the entire Rugby Championship campaign.

That would also have facilitated another entirely logical step: retention of Du Toit on the side of the scrum.

Instead, and admittedly with no lack of method to the “madness”, if you like, Erasmus has engineered an intriguing reshuffle to make room anew for Whiteley’s pace, clever running angles and generally brainy qualities in the loose trio.

There’s no need to crucify him for it: the Bok coach is clearly prepared to keep tampering creatively with his line-ups with a bigger picture in mind - striking the perfect blend for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

It is hardly the most heinous of moves to ask Vermeulen to do duty at blindside, even if it will be the first time he does so as a starter at Test level.

The robust unit has the physical qualities (and then some, even) to prosper there, and certainly did exactly that when he made his much-publicised move from Bloemfontein to Cape Town in time for the 2009 Super Rugby season with the Stormers: Schalk Burger was the open-side flank at the time and Luke Watson fairly entrenched at eight.

It was no problem; Vermeulen fared eye-catchingly well at seven, until the time came for him to make his preferred shift to the back of the scrum.

There’s a pleasing sense of balance to the loose trio for Saturday and, indeed, the Bok engine room as a broader collective.

Du Toit should have no difficulties readjusting to life - even if only temporarily, perhaps? - in the second row with his franchise colleague Eben Etzebeth.

Nevertheless, you could contend that Whiteley is under just that wee bit of extra pressure now to really pull his weight effectively at No 8, considering the extent to which Erasmus has gone in “fixing”, you might say, a couple of positional areas where the Boks decidedly hadn’t seemed in any way “broken”.

For that to happen, replicating his hugely industrious showing in the famous 36-34 Wellington victory over the All Blacks would be exactly the right medicine.

In conditions not enormously dissimilar to what the Boks may encounter over the next few weeks, Whiteley reminded with some force in the Cake Tin that he is not simply a fast-track, sunny-day sort of marauder.

He put in a yeoman, body-on-the-line shift on defence, in particular, including one memorable, murderously committed chase-down from behind of a flying scrumhalf TJ Perenara, who had seemed earmarked to romp over for a vital New Zealand try late in the contest.

Another convincing showing from the rangy 31-year-old at Twickenham and then onward through the rest of November could just see Kolisi-Vermeulen-Whiteley merge into a tight new loosie firm in the closer lead-up to the World Cup, even as certain other combos will continue to hold substantial appeal ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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