Cape Town - If there is one blessing from the cooling coals of the Allister Coetzee tenure as Springbok coach, it is that South Africa, even in this bleak phase, sport a pack of forwards capable of equalling or even out-grunting the very premier of opposition eights.
And that’s not a bad start on the road toward so obviously-needed redemption next year, is it?
Highly likely to be pushed onto his sword later this month with his flimsy 44 percent win record after two full seasons, Coetzee was not exactly error-free in the way he assembled his packs - like, for example, cavalierly using two or three flankers out of natural habitat as he grappled with the No 8 void in matches where both Duane Vermeulen and Warren Whiteley were not able to be considered for differing reasons.
But he got enough things right, too, generally putting together impressive physicality and cohesiveness (plus suitable back-up depth) in his tight fives and making at least a relative success of some experiments - for instance, putting Pieter-Steph du Toit’s all-round talents to good use in a switch back to the cares of blindside flank on occasions for him.
Add to the present engine-room personnel, toward the middle of next year - when England are due on our shores for a three-Test series - likely fit-again names like Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Frans Malherbe, Coenie Oosthuizen and Jean-Luc du Preez, and the anticipated new “Team Rassie” brains trust will be scratching their heads more over who to leave out than who to actually pick.
Indeed, in several matches this year, the Bok forwards collectively must have entered the post-match dressing room bemused (to put it temperately) either over a defeat or why the Boks have not won by bigger margins at times, such has been their mastery and commendable levels of industry and physical endeavour.
Yet the area where Coetzee all too glaringly failed to cut the mustard, to the sometimes embarrassing detriment of the overall product, was in the backline, both in terms of attacking play - the chronic lack of quality thereof - and defensive solidity and organisation.
That is where Erasmus and whichever lieutenants aid him have the most formidable, correctional task on their hands.
No berth behind the scrum can currently be deemed to be in unbudgeable hands, although I would submit that these four are the positions where the state of affairs is presently the sorriest ...
Did you, like me, get more than a bit weary of Andries Coetzee’s little “swerve to the left, then charge smack into two defenders” party trick this year?
Sadly the pace-challenged Lions No 15 just never seemed able to present an offensive threat or smattering of unpredictability from the rear of play, and it wasn’t as though he was notably imperious in dealing with high balls (a major, major weakness for the Springboks) or with an effective kicking game, either.
That he played all 13 Test in 2017 was inexplicable under the circumstances, an example of Coetzee’s selection inertia in several instances - and zero personal tries only bore out his impotence.
There will be a massive clamour, quite understandably, for twinkle-toed Warrick Gelant to start in his more specialist role against England in June, even if he will also have plenty to prove in the more “donkeywork” aspects of the role at the highest level.
Other appealing options include ever-versatile, overseas-based Frans Steyn, who has played with great aplomb for the Boks at No 15 before: he would bring precious brawn and height to the Bok back three and a monster boot even if, like Coetzee, he is no silver bullet for pace.
Remember also that Jean de Villiers, Bok captain of the Heyneke Meyer era, believes Dillyn Leyds offers the national team better possibilities as a fullback than wing.
Dark horse? I’d say the Stormers/WP’s hugely exciting utility factor and game-breaker extraordinaire Damian Willemse, although if Curwin Bosch shows sturdier defence in Super Rugby 2018 ...
This is the area where coach Coetzee’s judgement has been, to put it bluntly, terrible.
Most good international teams - regardless of location - these days have wings who combine stealth and speed with considerable power as well, and here “Toetie” just never got the mix right.
Raymond Rhule was a brittle flop on the right earlier this season, whilst Courtnall Skosan was shown staggering patience at No 11 - a dozen Tests on the trot, about seven too many considering his regular, sad inability to make the step up from Super Rugby.
Now the Boks are left scratching their heads for the immediate future in both wide slots.
Leyds reminded of his awareness of situations and general footballing flair with a majestic, eventually try-producing breakout from deep in Cardiff on Saturday, so maybe he still has a future at No 14, especially if the Boks can find a fairly robust character to operate on the other side.
That solution may lie in S’bu Nkosi, if the broad-thighed young Sharks flier makes a sprightly comeback from injury in the early parts of next season, although consistently try-hungry Makazole Mapimpi (intriguingly also Durban-bound) must be properly considered too.
I get laughed at quite a lot whenever I venture the name of 31-year-old, proven Test match-winner JP Pietersen … and still can’t fully figure out why, to be honest.
Jesse Kriel is just another example of Coetzee giving a faithful nod to mediocrity in 2017.
Well short of the player who shone quite brightly in the Meyer tenure, Kriel wasn’t a disaster on the Euro tour ... but if the Boks are to march to renewed heights, they’ll need more than just “not disasters” in many berths, won’t they?
Kriel continues to be too crab-like on attack, boxing his wings in, and isn’t without defensive lapses in concentration and positioning, either.
Montpellier’s Jan Serfontein is versatile, but likelier to stay a more compelling candidate for inside centre, so the big pushers next year ought to be Lukhanyo Am (a cursory Test debut late on against Wales at the weekend) and Francois Venter, who largely did well acting in the closer channel on the northern tour.
The Lions pair of Harold Vorster and Rohan Janse van Rensburg will also challenge for the Bok midfield as a whole, although the latter, much-trumpeted in Jo’burg, still has rougher edges than some will acknowledge.
Maybe Ross Cronje will bounce back revitalised in time for next year’s Test roster, but he looked increasingly fatigued and lacking in ideas or direction at No 9 as the Bok year ground onward in 2017 - not helped by tardy tactical kicking, either.
Mostly peripheral on the Euro tour, both Rudy Paige and Louis Schreuder should remain thereabouts, but expect Erasmus and company also to explore options elsewhere in a berth where a cutting edge is so sorely lacking.
Overseas-based Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach, albeit both well short of the “30 caps” stipulation, may be seduced anew if the scrumhalf situation doesn’t improve during Super Rugby, where players like Jano Vermaak and Dewaldt Duvenage will also keep knocking from Newlands.
What about James Hall? The SA Under-20 star of 2016 is only 21, and campaigning in the French Top 14 with Oyonnax in the French Top 14 - he knew how to get a line away smartly when he was still domestically based.
Then there’s also a rookie like the Lions’ Marco Jansen van Vuren but just because he is “tall like Joost” doesn’t exactly make him a guaranteed Test legend yet; let’s see how he prospers in more generous exposure to Super Rugby first?
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