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
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
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
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.
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