Cape Town – The Lions, beaten but not disgraced in the Super
Rugby final, rightly retain healthy enough numbers in the Springbok squad
revealed later on Saturday for the initial phase of the Castle Rugby
Seven players from the Johannesburg franchise, now runners-up
in successive years, have cracked the nod from Bok coach Allister Coetzee, and
that tally would obviously have been eight had Warren Whiteley – current
first-choice captain of both the Lions and national team – been available.
It was revealed with the squad announcement that Whiteley
requires another six weeks on the sidelines after his groin injury, making it
increasingly likely that he may only see service again for the two closing
fixtures of the scheduled six -- at home to Australia (Bloemfontein, September
30) and New Zealand (Cape Town, October 7).
Although there was no specific mention of a stand-in
captain, logic suggests that Coetzee will keep faith in rugged lock Eben
Etzebeth – certainly for game one against Argentina at Port Elizabeth in a
fortnight – for that chore.
He impressed in that capacity in the final Test against
France at Emirates Airline Park on June 24, where the Boks won 35-12 to ensure
a 3-0 sweep of the series.
Apart from the enforced absence of Whiteley, there is just
one other Lions-based omission in the Championship group, from the party which
did service against the French: tighthead prop Ruan Dreyer has fallen from
Anyone who watched the Super Rugby final, where the Lions –
down to 14 men for 42 minutes of it after the unfortunate but justified enough
red card for Kwagga Smith – fought to the very end before succumbing 25-17 to
the admirable Crusaders, could hardly have grumbled too much about Dreyer’s Bok
He took strain at scrum-time in the showpiece from both
formidable ‘Saders looseheads, Joe Moody and then a fired-up veteran Wyatt
Crockett, and conceded several penalties.
But Lions still in favour with the Bok coach are Jaco Kriel,
Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert, Andries Coetzee, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies and
Standing in again for Whiteley, open-side flanker Kriel led
by example in the final, getting through a mountain of energetic, mobile work
on both attack and defence, and at very worst seems an appealing impact-sub option
for the Boks in the Championship if the plan is to persevere with Siya Kolisi
in the No 6 role – as they probably should.
Most of the other Lions-based Boks also put in a plucky
shift against the cerebral Crusaders, even if there were also plenty of moments
of angst and pressure for them, especially in the first half where the tourists
built a pivotal head of steam on the scoreboard before a typical Lions
claw-back later in the contest.
But plenty of Lions enthusiasts will almost certainly not
take kindly to the cold-shouldering of Ruan Combrinck, the right wing who was
in resurgent form following injury during the closing weeks of Super Rugby.
A composed, determined, all-round footballer with a powerful
relieving boot as well, Combrinck earned seven caps during the Boks’ annus
horribilis in 2016, suffering sometimes in line with the general malaise and
instability but also producing certain more inspiring moments than most.
He is back to his best, yet for the moment has to resign
himself to the assurance from Coetzee that his squad is “not cast in stone” and
tweaks can be made during the tournament.
It may bemuse some onlookers that the franchise with
majority representation in the 34-strong Bok squad is the Bulls (eight
players), a situation boosted by the call-up to the ranks of the “back three”
positions for uncapped Warrick Gelant, the gifted young fullback who could
certainly double as a wing if necessary.
Gelant’s presence may well have thwarted Combrinck’s ticket
to the party, although a few other customers may also be a tad fortunate to
count as ahead of him in the pecking order.
The Bulls ended a lowly, effective 15th overall
in the 18-team competition, but their eight-strong Bok nod – the same as the
Stormers – just beats off neighbours the Lions, whilst the Sharks have six
There are four Cheetahs players in the mix, and just a lone
presence of a genuine overseas-based player: perhaps also a debatable one, at
that, in Worcester-based scrumhalf Francois Hougaard.
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