Boks forced into big loosie rethink

2017-06-27 14:00
Warren Whiteley (Gallo)

Cape Town – The strong likelihood now that regular captain Warren Whiteley will miss the start of the Castle Rugby Championship means head coach Allister Coetzee has to earnestly re-evaluate the shape of his loose trio.

That should be the case for at least their two opening games of the competition, first home and then away to Argentina on August 19 and 26 respectively.

The revelation on Tuesday that Whiteley’s injury – a torn pelvic ligament – is a bit worse than initially expected, and could side-line him for up to two months, suggests he might only be able to reassume his national post against Australia for game three at Perth on September 9.

Stand-in skipper seems a fairly clear-cut issue, following the success of rugged lock Eben Etzebeth’s hastily-engineered elevation to the role in the third Test against France at Emirates Airline Park last Saturday.

But the big question to be asked in team make-up terms, probably minus Whiteley for a couple more Tests, is this: did the loose trio engaged against the French in Johannesburg strike the necessary balance?

Bear in mind also that the unit, made up of Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel and Jean-Luc du Preez, did duty in a dead-rubber affair against increasingly tiring foes coming off a long northern season; things may get tougher for the Boks even in the reasonably favourable-looking earliest Championship fixtures for them.

All three were decent individually at the weekend, but purists of loose forward play will be all too aware that structurally it was hardly an alliance built in heaven.

Although this writer is firmly among those believing open-side flank is Kolisi’s best station – and he certainly excelled there during the French series – even he is only gradually coming to terms with the slot again after much usage as a blind-sider by the Stormers.

If he is “adjusting” to life there, the task was even more challenging for both Kriel and Du Preez at Ellis Park.

The former filled the Whiteley void against France for his first starting appearance in national colours, albeit in the less than ideal No 7 (blindside) capacity for him.

Kriel is a more renowned No 6 tearaway, with strengths in pilfering and speedy linking play, as evidenced by his vital statistics of 1.84m and not quite 100kg – hardly the stuff of a more traditional blindside bruiser, although he put himself about the park zestfully on Saturday.

Similarly, Du Preez did well enough at No 8, even as his own more natural habitat is at seven where his tall, 113kg frame comes in hugely handy; his twin brother Dan wears No 8 whenever the pair are in alliance for the Sharks at Super Rugby level.

Can the Boks afford to persevere for the moment with a trio more than a little “unnatural” looking, despite its parts being pretty formidable as independent entities?

That is something for Coetzee to get his head around over the next few weeks.

Other loose forward options in his current, broader squad include Oupa Mohoje and the versatile lock-cum-flank Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Mohoje should return to first-class activity imminently after his concussion misfortune in the second Test against France, putting him back in contention for the No 7 shirt even if his best attributes are in open play rather than in genuine “grunt” duties closer to the boiler room.

But many open-side flanks these days are quite seamlessly interchangeable between No 6 and eighth-man, suggesting that Whiteley’s Lions colleague Kriel could also be considered as a direct replacement at eight.

The two, tearaway young No 8s in the respective SA ‘A’ triumphs over the French Barbarians recently, Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Stormers) and then Andisa Ntsila (Kings), are also seemingly destined for bigger things, although whether they are quite ready to be pitched into the demands of the Rugby Championship remains to be seen.

An ideal direct alternative to Whiteley for the Bok No 8 berth, of course, might have been a certain, richly-experienced Duane Vermeulen.

But the Toulon-based hard man was ruled out of the entire French series -- after an inconvenient shoulder injury in the Top 14 final -- just before it kicked off.

*Amidst suggestions the injury might require surgery, Sport24 had been trying to establish from SARU at the time of writing whether Vermeulen has, indeed, been told to go under the knife.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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