Boks: Koch, Kriel can bury ghosts

2016-08-08 16:18
Jesse Kriel (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Two Springboks, Vincent Koch and Jesse Kriel, are likely to be particularly relieved by a much-altered make-up of the Argentinean squad travelling to South Africa for the opening fixture in the Rugby Championship between the sides at Mbombela Stadium on Saturday, August 20.

Both were led a merry dance by respective direct opponents Marcos Ayerza and Juan Imhoff when the teams met – many Bok fans would say “infamously” so – the last time on South African soil at Kings Park on August 8 2015, bang on a year ago now.

In a compressed Championship due to the looming demands of RWC 2015 then, the Pumas earned an historic, maiden 37-25 triumph in Durban.

But a major, subsequent policy revamp by Argentina’s bosses means that they are heavily fancied to overlook all European-based stars for the 2016 tournament “rematch” in South Africa – and Leicester-based Ayerza and Racing Metro’s Imhoff would be among the most notable omissions.

It was decided toward the end of 2015 that only players committing to the new Jaguares Super Rugby franchise for the 2016 season would be eligible, going forward, for Argentina.

The 2015 encounter in KwaZulu-Natal turned into a bit of a nightmare for the Boks all round, amidst suggestions that they had been over-trained by then-coach Heyneke Meyer and his lieutenants in the immediate build-up and were mentally and physically knackered before they even took to the Durban pitch.

Although it was his second cap, tighthead prop Koch made his first start in green and gold and, hardly helped by the collective pack lethargy, had a really rough time at the set-piece against Ayerza, the Pumas’ loosehead still regarded by many as the world’s best in a No 1 shirt.

If Stormers-based Koch – a standout scrummager of Super Rugby 2015 -- was carrying an injury into that appearance, as suggested, it was even more of an impediment to holding his own against the South American legend and he duly went backwards and/or was penalised at a rate of knots.

But that day was also a nightmare for team-mate Kriel, controversially placed on the right wing by Meyer – the first and only time in a total of 12 Bok appearances thus far in which he has occupied that role.

Much more at home at fullback or centre, Kriel was found positionally wanting at times as Imhoff, on the Argentinean left, cashed in to dot three personal tries in the space of fewer than 20 minutes: the first time ever that a player had earned a hat-trick against the Boks at Test level.

The Pumas squad had not been released at the time of writing on Monday, although there seemed every chance the selectors would stick to the “no Euro players” principle.

Near the end of the World Cup last year the gnarly, 33-year-old Ayerza expressed enthusiasm for extending his 66-cap Test career, hoping there might be “exceptions” to the policy.

Perhaps significantly, Argentina’s last Test match, minus a handful of proven foreign-based individuals, saw then well beaten 27-0 on home soil by France in late June, although the mini-series was shared 1-1.

Despite that slightly sobering Tucuman outcome, neither Ayerza or Imhoff – the latter is having a crack at the Olympic Sevens over the next few days – is expected to feature against the Boks over successive weekends (Nelspruit, then Salta).

That should make things a little easier this time for Koch, recalled on Saturday to the 31-strong squad as a replacement for injured Frans Malherbe and probably the designated tighthead replacement at some point during the Mbombela clash for the Lions’ Julian Redelinghuys, likely to be the starter.

He was back in much-improved form during the closing weeks of Super Rugby in his swansong campaign for the Stormers, including making some forceful carries leading to several tries.

Kriel, meanwhile, will almost certainly not revisit a wing berth anyway – Imhoff or no Imhoff in the Argentinean mix – and is well in the running for the Bok vacancy in the last line of defence, now that Willie le Roux has fallen quite spectacularly from favour.

At worst, Bulls representative Kriel would be a decent utility option off the bench against the Pumas.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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