Boks in rare ‘loosie’ shambles

2016-06-19 18:56
Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – It has traditionally been an area of boundless riches and consistent excellence for the Springboks.

But after two Test matches in 2016, instability suddenly reigns worrisomely supreme when it comes to the composition and effectiveness of the country’s loose trio -- the department which has arguably been more responsible than any for their glaring present flaws, and one now further clouded by dual injury concerns over the No 8 berth.

The Boks are somehow still alive at 1-1 in their three-Test home series with unsung Ireland, courtesy of a gritty, Houdini-like last 20 minutes of Saturday’s dramatic second clash at Emirates Airline Park.

Of course there is a case for saying that momentum may now be on the side of Allister Coetzee’s charges as they head for the decider in Port Elizabeth, but if you examined evidence from the surrendered Newlands opening Test and the first two thirds or more of the Johannesburg follow-up, you’d also realise that the tourists can’t remotely be deemed squeezed out of the series spoils yet.

In running that rather unpalatable rule over things, a common denominator over the course of the first two encounters would be just how unsatisfactorily the starting loose trio each time – Francois Louw, Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen – has performed.

It’s been a surprising development, bearing in mind just how proven both Louw and Vermeulen, now plying their club trades in northern climes, are as Test players, and the known potential of Kolisi, 25, who isn’t a complete rookie to this level after earning his maiden cap in the 2013 season.

Open-side flank Louw has been perhaps the nearest of the three to delivering to best levels, although even he is capable of far more assertive all-round performances than witnessed against the Irish thus far.

Vermeulen, meanwhile, is normally one of the most energetic, highly-trumpeted and physically committed Springboks, but just had two of his least memorable of 37 green-and-gold appearances in rapid succession, not helped by being a near-passenger for most of the first half in Jo’burg as he was clearly impeded by an elbow/arm injury.

Kolisi? I have said this before and say so again: I simply don’t believe he cuts the mustard as a Test blind-side flank for the Boks, and his positional role among the loosies needs to be re-assessed.

The Stormers man does some constructive things at times, but he also goes through too-lengthy periods of anonymity and, on Saturday, was at least twice robbed of the ball in contact as well as being guilty of missing some tackles and fumbling the “pill” – not the lone culprit, in fairness.

It was galling, for large tracts of the first two Tests, to see a Bok loose trio playing clear second fiddle at the breakdown and more generally to counterparts from a mid-table Six Nations side on SA soil.

Remember that Ireland arrived here for the tour minus their long-time premier pilferer by reputation Sean O’Brien and, for the second Test, were also robbed of the services of George-born flanker CJ Stander through suspension.

Clearly a major rethink of the Bok loose trio is required by Coetzee and his lieutenants, even if certain other areas of play also require very focused thought in the coming days.

One virtual no-brainer is that Warren Whiteley, the up-and-at-‘em Lions captain, deserves a start at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium after successive, highly positive infusions off the bench.

Along with fired-up wing substitute and franchise-mate Ruan Combrinck, the rangy competitor’s summons to duty for the entire second half at Ellis Park played a critical role in the game turning on its head and the series to stay mercifully in the balance.

But Whiteley, who has not yet started a Test for the Boks despite five caps, most inconveniently hurt a shoulder towards the finish, leaving his presence for the decider in some doubt, along with the Vermeulen situation.

Considering the broad success experienced by several Lions players coming off the splinters to revive the Boks on Saturday, there will be a rightful, mounting call for another – the hitherto inactive tearaway Jaco Kriel – to be at least part of the match-day 23 in the Friendly City, and possibly even leapfrog the so-so Louw to the No 6 jersey.

The Irish eventually ran out of gas on the Highveld, and if the Boks wish to leaden their opponents’ legs even further at tour’s end with an up-tempo approach in PE, Kriel seems a good candidate to inject real pace and X-factor, and perhaps also start securing much-needed steals on the deck.

If Whiteley and Vermeulen are both available for action, then the latter (or Louw) moving to blind-side flank at the expense of Kolisi should be considered to facilitate Whiteley wearing his favoured No 8 shirt.

The Boks also prospered in the necessarily intense closing minutes last Saturday when lock Pieter-Steph du Toit moved to blindside flank and Franco Mostert gave commendable oomph in the second row on brief debut, but the blond livewire fully warrants another start at No 5.

Yet what if both Vermeulen and Whiteley cannot regain fitness in time? That leaves a more pronounced headache at No 8 specifically, and could open the door for a bit of a bolter: Sikhumbuzo Notshe.

The versatile 23-year-old seems the most natural – and frankly appealing – fit for the jersey from the current enlarged Bok squad ranks should the more seasoned eighth-man duo be sidelined, and impressed with his marauding runs and purring engine in the first SA ‘A’ game against the England Saxons in Bloemfontein.

That said, Kriel probably also has the footballing acumen to be able to make an adjustment in a time of need from No 6 to No 8, a la David Pocock or Sean McMahon in Australia.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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