Cape Town - The fact that the Springboks will be going into their third match of their European tour with their third different back row combination brings into focus one of the main reasons that the South African team has struggled with its identity recently.
READ: Mbonambi set for first Bok start
On the occasion of the clash with Italy in Padau, this time it is not a selection call that will bring about the change, but the paternity leave granted to Siya Kolisi. The Stormers man will be back with the Boks for next week’s clash with the Welsh in Cardiff, and with Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw not available for that game because of club calls, it will mean yet another radical change to the back-row.
The problem with all the changes to the back row is that the resources available to coach Allister Coetzee in that area reflect a wider problem, which is the lack of like for like back-up. The challenge facing an international coach shouldn’t revolve just around choosing the best available players in his squad, but on finding the right mix of players and styles so that he isn’t pigeon-holed into changing the game strategy if there is an injury.
For instance, Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies, who have been the two flyhalves in the match 23 for most of the year, are quite different players (though not as different as either of them would be to the third flyhalf, Curwin Bosch or, if he were there, someone like Morne Steyn).
If Pollard goes off early in the Italy clash the Boks will have to adapt their game-plan as Jantjies isn’t as strong on the gain-line. Of course, it also goes the other way, and we saw in the Newlands clash with the All Blacks last month how the Boks became more of an attacking threat when Pollard came on in the last quarter.
The make-up of the back-row can have an even more profound impact on what kind of game you can play, and the Boks have not been helped by the loose-forward merry-go-round that has been enacted for much of the year.
Think back to June and the early part of the Rugby Championship, when the debate revolved around whether Coetzee should move away from the mobile combination that he had playing for him when Jaco Kriel was fit. The appointed skipper for the season, Warren Whiteley, for whom by the way there is no like for like No 8 replacement in the current squad, is a rangy player who plays to the wide channels and operates like an extra back. Uzair Cassiem was chosen to play No 8 because he was considered similar but never quite came through as a member of the starting unit.
There was a push for Jean-Luc du Preez to be selected at No 7 because he fitted the requirement for the stereotypical Bok blindside – big and bulky and a strong presence on the drive. Coetzee went for that option in the Albany test against the All Blacks but although the selection achieved the objective of giving the Boks an early physical ascendancy, the cohesion and mobility that there was when the by then injured Kriel was present was missed. It didn’t help the Bok cause against a New Zealand team that was slicker, quicker and infinitely better skilled.
Vermeulen has made a welcome return to the team and could find himself pressed into playing as a No 7 when Whiteley returns, and Francois Louw was of course used at the back of the scrum at Newlands and in Dublin. For now though the Boks are a long way from playing with the back row configuration that they started the year with (Vermeulen is much tighter than Whiteley and has different strengths).
Pieter-Steph du Toit is back from his concussion and will play blindside flank against Italy, thus replacing in Kolisi a man who has played much of the season as an openside flank. Du Toit was one of the few players to do well before he was injured in the Ireland test and is worth persisting with as a blindside. The Italy game will hopefully help him build momentum for the Welsh match that will end a year that started well for the Boks but is now threatening to close with a whimper rather than a roar and with more questions than answers.
He will be part though of a back row that will have a new No 8 and one that, if as expected it is Dan du Preez, will gain be very different from the other players who have played that position this season.
15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Giovanni Licata, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Substitutes: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Francesco Minto, 20 Renato Giammarioli, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Ian Mckinley, 23 Matteo Minozzi
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (captain), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Dan du Preez, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Warrick Gelant
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