Boks: Frail turns fab at the back!

2018-06-11 13:23
Willie le Roux (Gallo)

Cape Town – Suddenly South Africa’s long-time fragility at wing and fullback is just beginning to look as though it may transform into a strongpoint in time for the next World Cup.

Let the try count from the victorious Emirates Airline Park thrill ride against England tell it all: four of the five Springbok dot-downs went the way of back-three members (S’bu Nkosi 2, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Willie le Roux).

These are traditionally key strike positions - something certainly still hugely relevant to premier world outfit the All Blacks – but the Boks, in the embers and immediate follow-up of Bryan Habana’s great reign and gradual fading from the scene of JP Pietersen, went through a lengthy period where returns from the berths were notably poor.

Especially in the Allister Coetzee two-year tenure as national coach, defensive competence nose-dived all too markedly in the positions as well.

Yet week after week and month after month “Toetie” only helped bury himself, really (he did make certain advances in other areas at times) through his inertia in selection among the fullbacks and wings.

Players like Raymond Rhule, Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds earned more generous spells in green and gold than they generally deserved during the course of unedifying 2016 and 2017.

In fairness, game-plan limitations probably did them no favours, and all have previously or even subsequently in some cases demonstrated a determination to restore their reputations at Super Rugby level.

But there was widespread agreement among critics and observers at the outset of this year that the back three needed very urgent remedial work … and successor Rassie Erasmus is already starting to show tangible fruit, it seems, from his vigorous “all change” policy.

Even in the scrambled-together, callow Bok combination Erasmus fielded for the controversial Washington DC exercise against Wales, wings Makazole Mapimpi (especially) and Travis Ismaiel showed at least some signs that they might cut it for more meaningful internationals than that one, further up the line.

It was certainly a very early pointer, too, to Erasmus acknowledging the Boks’ urgent need to muscle up and field some slightly taller souls in the wide slots, where strategic “aerial assault” has become such a prolific phenomenon in modern rugby.

But he clearly had significant enough confidence, all the while, in his intended debutants for the big Johannesburg crunch - Nkosi and Dyantyi - not to even put them on the long-haul flight to the United States and instead remain at home to fine-tune for the English challenge.

As it turned out, both only powered Bok wing play considerably further along the road toward a return to much-needed global reverence in the wide positions.

It is true that the rookie pair were caught as cold as anyone else in the Springbok backline in that heart-stopping, initial England salvo of scores, but once the host nation got into a more settled mode, they became two of the most lethal of Bok raiders in the stirring fightback.

Perhaps the most satisfying moment was seeing No 14 Nkosi swiftly ghost his way into service on the opposite wing, and get involved in some deft interplay with home-town favourite Dyantyi, in the lead-up to his second try.

The solidly-built Sharks customer (that physical hallmark is manna from heaven in itself) had also revealed a beautifully subtle side to his rugby makeup just four minutes earlier with his clever grubber preceding his maiden score.

As for Dyantyi, it was an eye-opener to see a Bok wing so willing - a little Habana-like at his prime - to so obviously go foraging for work and seek to cash in on any opportunistic moment or two that might come his way.

At 1.82m and 86kg, he is no Taqele Naiyaravoro-type freight train (or even a Rieko Ioane, for that matter), but perhaps just in body language and heart certainly gives the impression that he is bigger than his tale of the tape may suggest.

The Lions flier once tore very spiritedly into his marker, Jonny May, with a classic, flooring midriff tackle and that is the kind of gesture that often helps galvanise an entire team in a ding-dong contest.

Looking so at home on their baptisms to Test rugby, it is exciting to think what the future may hold for Dyantyi, 23, and the 22-year-old Nkosi if they gel into the must-pick regular combo for the country - they should sport a more comforting 15-plus caps each by the time World Cup 2019 comes along.

Already a prolific try-scorer across various first-class competitions, the wiry Mapimpi may well breathe heavily, and constructively so, down their necks for selection.

As for fullback, the Boks should be well served by a seemingly rejuvenated, X-factor-laden Le Roux if Erasmus’s intention is to more regularly play the kind of fast-tempo, expansive game evident for generous tracts of the first Test from them.

Just given the unpredictable figure he is, expect the Wasps-based man to produce the occasional howler, as he has before.

But he also takes the Boks well away from the more formulaic approach to No 15 play that was too easily apparent when players like Coetzee or, previously, Zane Kirchner were stationed in that role.

I’d say with conviction that Warrick Gelant, the current back-up in the last line of defence, is also inherently much more of a “Le Roux” in playing style than the other two, so the Boks may not lose too much style-wise if the seasoned incumbent, say, got injured.

Early days, yes, but there’s already a healthy portion of evidence on the table to suggest things are looking up more swiftly than we anticipated among the Bok back three …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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