Durban - Less than a year ago, the thought of the Springboks going into the Castle Lager Rugby Championship without their talisman Duane Vermeulen was almost unthinkable.
But going into Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener against Argentina in Nelspruit the Boks look reasonably comfortable without the big guy.
Coach Allister Coetzee addressed the issue on Monday after Vermeulen pulled out of the squad with a knee injury on Saturday, saying he was comfortable with the talent he has at his disposal ahead of a tough competition.
Coetzee’s worries of course, have been allayed by the form of Lions captain Warren Whiteley, who is set to line up in the No 8 jersey on Saturday in Vermeulen’s absence.
In essence the chances were good that Whiteley would always have lined up at 8, with Vermeulen shifting to seven mooted before the squad came together, but now Coetzee must consider the physicality in the squad to ensure he doesn’t lose out too much without the physicality that Vermeulen brings to the side.
Coetzee described the loss of Vermeulen as a massive blow to the side, but said that there are a number of good loose forwards in the country, which should mean that the team will have enough cover. No other player has been called up to the squad in Vermeulen’s place.
“Definitely an experienced player and a calibre player that he is, it is always a bit of a setback,” Coetzee said on Vermeulen.
“But then again the national team should be covered in all positions. And I’m happy in the cover we have in Warren Whiteley, who has played in the last two tests in any case.”
Coetzee said the option of playing Whiteley is an exciting one, and that he believes it would add flair to the Bok pack, with the hope being that Vermeulen may well join the team somewhere during the competition.
“I’m really excited about him starting, I’m sorry for Duane but he has done his knee and hopefully it won’t take that long. This is a long competition, two weeks in-between breaks as well. With Warren’s load this year, you would like to think that Duane would come through at the right time of the season again,” Coetzee added.
“You don’t want it to happen but that is how it is and hopefully he will be back for the last two games of the Rugby Championship and I’m happy with Warren stepping into that role.”
Coetzee reiterated that the loss of Vermeulen didn’t change the plan for the Boks, although small adjustments may well need to be made.
Whiteley has struggled with a calf injury in recent weeks but the Lions captain seems to be over the niggle that bothered him in the late stages of the Super Rugby campaign.
“No look, it doesn’t change the plan. It may add something to the way we want to play – because it is like swings and roundabouts,” Coetzee said.
“ When you lose a bit of physicality here, you gain a little bit of flair and covering ground on the field as well. I have to make sure I don’t lose on both sides – the physicality must still be there and we need to have good ball carriers in the team and make sure they have to be effective to give the guys with flair the opportunity to do that. If you’re battling out there, if you are battling on the gainline they will be non-existent as well.”
Coetzee added that he was happy with the balance he had at loose forward, even without the Toulon captain.
“The way I’ve painted the picture is our two opensiders are obviously Francois Louw and Jaco Kriel. Our two No 8s are Warren and Sikhumbuso Notshe and we’re looking – that is why we have a guy like Oupa Mohoje in the squad so I don’t need to bring in an extra guy.
“I can have a Pieter-Steph du Toit covering in that position as well and then you can have a good balance in your back row and I’m happy with that.”
The Boks will name their starting line-up on Thursday.
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