Springboks

Boks: Rassie to reunite potent centre pair?

2018-05-14 19:47
Jesse Kriel (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Recent Super Rugby form in both cases is making it increasingly feasible that Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel will be restored as the midfield alliance for the Springboks in June.

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If not in the opening, neutral-turf Test against Wales in Washington DC – when new coach Rassie Erasmus is likely to be experimental – then the three-Test home series against England immediately afterwards could see the pair rekindle a partnership that was going places at a pleasing rate of knots in 2015 but has had only one further airing as a starting combo since.

In varying ways, De Allende and Kriel, both Cape Town-born but always representatives of different domestic franchises, have had their respective “difficulties” since they last clicked so pleasingly as an international unit some three years ago.

Sometimes they have gone so seriously off the boil, in fact, that harsher critics have been tempted to write them off as Test-level factors - seemingly forgetting about the X-factor so sparklingly evident in both, on their good days.

The tall, strongly-built De Allende picked up an ill-timed, long-term ankle injury while playing club rugby in Japan at the tail-end of that 2015 World Cup year, whilst another at the start of 2017 meant his Super Rugby season for the Stormers was once again cruelly impeded.

For some time, both between the setbacks and then following the second, the man from unfashionable Milnerton High School lost a considerable amount of his prior explosiveness, not to mention a big dollop of confidence, it seemed, as well.

But with 2018 having been much smoother sailing for him thus far from a fitness and game-time point of view, De Allende has looked much more like the individual force of 2015, when he was a nominee for SA Rugby Player of the Year.

The Stormers aren’t exactly cooking collectively, but the big No 12 has generally been a ray of light amidst the fog of mediocrity in the results column.

He has regained a lot of his acceleration and sheer desire to either ghost or power his way through a hole, and on a day against the Chiefs most recently when the Stormers’ defensive game was more on song than their listless attacking one, he made some firm tackles in the 15-9 Newlands defeat as if to confirm a restored sense of all-round harmony to his repertoire.

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Meanwhile up in Pretoria, Kriel has been recapturing his own crackle to a significant extent under the new, more progressive and up-tempo template laid down for the Bulls this year by John Mitchell.

The muscular, lower-centre-of-gravity (in relation to De Allende) outside centre is increasingly eliminating certain rough edges to his rugby, both technically and when it comes to spatial awareness.

I spotted Kriel and a couple of Bulls team-mates at a popular Mouille Point gelato parlour one night over the weekend when they were in Cape Town for the surrendered derby against De Allende’s Stormers.

But in keeping with a dairy theme, Kriel was like a knife gliding through melting butter just a week later, when he was a real front-foot handful – especially during the first half -- of their rapid bounce-back, 39-33 triumph over the Sharks at Loftus on Saturday.

With both players amassing strong claims at a convenient time, the likelihood is only mounting that they will be placed together in the Bok midfield against England.

Familiar combos, when you think about it, will be relatively scarce as new coach Erasmus begins his Test tenure – selection and positional stability had become a near-shambles under his immediate predecessor Allister Coetzee – so any merging of players well versed in operating as a unit may well be an appealing, comforting thought to him.

During 2015, then-coach Heyneke Meyer got great reward from the De Allende-Kriel alliance at centre, including for a protracted, prosperous period of the English-staged World Cup once the Brighton fiasco up front against Japan was well out of the way and luckless captain Jean de Villiers finally stripped from the midfield by another major injury in game two against Samoa.

The Boks recovered extremely well to advance to a semi-final against New Zealand (only lost 20-18) and later banked the bronze spot at the tournament, with De Allende and Kriel always the buzzing, starting centre combination from Newcastle – the triumph over Scotland – onward.

In total, they have begun 10 Tests in partnership and tasted victory in seven of those.

Bear in mind also that there is potentially plenty of Bok rugby left in both, as De Allende is only 26 and Kriel still younger at 24.

Interestingly, too, neither has blossomed yet to a more satisfying degree in any different Bok combo, despite De Allende (28 caps) having lined up alongside all of De Villiers, Lionel Mapoe, Juan de Jongh and Francois Venter, and Kriel (29 appearances, not all at centre) teamed with Jan Serfontein, Venter and De Jongh.

Of course there are other midfielders keenly vying for Test activity in June, possibly including Serfontein (if fit) and Frans Steyn for the No 12 shirt and, for the outside berth, Lukhanyo Am.

But a De Allende/Kriel reunion wouldn’t be something to bet against too heavily, as things stand.

We know, after all, that this firm can gel near-blissfully …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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