Cape Town – On paper it should be an
embarrassment of riches. In reality, the Springbok centre berths suddenly look
about as stable as the South African economy.
New coach Allister Coetzee will, as things
stand, have a particular quandary on his hands when it comes to determining his
first-choice midfield duo for the first Test against Ireland at Newlands on June
Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Juan de
Jongh, Jan Serfontein ... we know what all are capable of doing; they’re just
not “doing it” regularly or compellingly enough at present, opening the door for
certain longer-shot names to enter the green-and-gold picture.
Over the last two or three years, the Boks
have gradually surrendered vast experience and stability in the positions with
the fading and then retirements of iconic figures Jean de Villiers – Heyneke
Meyer’s preferred captain whenever fit throughout his reign – and Jaque Fourie.
Still, with the luckless De Villiers again
stalked by injury mishap at RWC 2015, it allowed a continued blossoming of the
more youthful alliance between De Allende, 24, and 22-year-old Kriel – both
started six of the seven Bok matches at the tournament where the country ended a
just about acceptable third.
So they can very much be branded the
The problem for Coetzee is that neither has
been at his best in Super Rugby in recent weeks – with inside centre De Allende
the main “sore thumb” in that respect.
He has been a shadow of the player who so
lit up 2015 with his power, purposefulness and sometimes sleight of hand since
his return from a long injury layoff a few weeks ago, and Saturday was no
different as he was dragged into the collective mire of the Stormers’ lethargic,
barely deserved draw with the humdrum Sunwolves in Singapore.
The same applied to franchise partner and
co-captain Juan de Jongh, who was anonymous for large parts of the grim contest
at a time when he needs to come to the fore to prove that he is worth fresh
consideration after a rather ding-dong Bok career spanning 14 Tests since 2010
but none in almost four years.
There will be fresh concerns in Coetzee’s
mind, too, over the last two outings for the Bulls – resounding defeats to the
Brumbies and Waratahs in succession – of their centre alliance of Serfontein
In the latest game in Sydney, the ‘Tahs
showed more gumption and verve on attack and that was despite the considerable
setback of seeing their own No 12 whizz, Kurtley Beale, leave the park with a
serious injury inside the first 60 seconds.
You can’t heap the blame for the Bulls’
current woes squarely on the shoulders of their midfielders, of course – their
problems are more widespread than that and include a scarcity of decent,
front-foot possession being teed up by the pack.
But the cold fact remains that sparkle and
synergy are rare phenomena of late from either of the Stormers or Bulls centre
combos, which is dragging down the credentials and possibly confidence of all
the individuals involved.
Perhaps it is no bad thing, then, from the
Bok coach’s point of view that on Saturday -- assuming all four start again --
a potentially educative, fog-clearing midfield “trial” takes place when the
Bulls tackle the Stormers in a key conference derby at Loftus (19:20 kickoff).
Apart from the importance of the fixture to
each side (separated by three points at the top of Africa Conference 1), the
quartet will be under pressure to excel both as individuals and partnerships.
They will be only too aware that several
slightly more dark-horse centres in the pecking order are pushing pretty firmly
for recognition: their ranks include Lionel Mapoe of the Lions, especially, as
well as the Cheetahs’ consistent Francois Venter and the big Sharks “stopper”
As always, the more distant name of
Montpellier-based Frans Steyn swirls in the breeze, although this mercurial
player comes with a certain baggage and single-mindedness that possibly counts
against involvement in a new Bok era about to commence.
The big midfield winner of the past weekend
from a “notice me” point of view was Mapoe, the 27-year-old who ran in a
hat-trick of tries against the Blues despite the slippery conditions at
Emirates Airline Park.
Mapoe’s Test career at this point stands at
a flimsy three late minutes off the bench against the All Blacks at his home
ground last year, and he is clearly hungry for renewed involvement.
It would be massively in his favour, you
would think, if his Lions team-mate Elton Jantjies earns the flyhalf nod,
because their attacking telepathy is frequently evident for the Lions.
“His form this year has been outstanding;
he’s got to be in the reckoning,” enthused SuperSport commentator and former
Bok captain Bob Skinstad during Saturday’s 43-5 whipping of the Blues.
Skinstad said he particular liked the
straightening qualities Mapoe brings to the backline, and he certainly has the
knack of running onto a deftly-weighted pass near the opposition try-line with
a perfect sense of timing and corkscrewing cleverness.
There is a certain, reassuring
“streetfighter” spirit to the Port Elizabeth-born customer, whilst his Lions captain
Warren Whiteley describes him as a dressing room character and a player capable
of sparking “something out of nothing”.
In a sea of uncertainty, Mapoe looks increasingly
like a welcome lifeboat.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing