Johannesburg - Springbok coach Allister Coetzee is hoping a gamble to pair Duane Vermeulen and Warren Whiteley in the same loose trio despite their differing styles will pay off big for the national team this year.
According to the supersport.com website, Coetzee named Whiteley as his captain on Tuesday, keeping with the tradition of not going overseas for Bok leadership, but added Vermeulen, whose size and bulk have traditionally been the way forward for a Springbok pack and intimated he will play blindside flank in a loose trio that will need to play a massive part in the Bok game plan this year.
Vermeulen disappointed in his brief appearance for the Boks last year, looked unfit and didn’t make the impact that we have come to know from the player affectionately known as “Thor”. And while there were few heroics last season, before Vermeulen was injured, his return to the Bok set-up will be one of the most crucially watched positions in the June Tests.
Coetzee’s move to cap Whiteley - a player who has been sensational in leading his Lions team for the past few seasons but has not made the same impact in a struggling Bok team last season - is understandable. Whiteley is by far the best candidate of the squad selected and it signals a willingness to move towards a more attacking structure, especially with Franco Smith as the Bok attack coach for the coming season.
But to leave the number eight in a more linking role - a roaming eight as Whiteley fulfils for the Lions - also means that the Boks will need to find someone to do the “donkey work” at the breakdown - a role traditionally fulfilled by the Lions by Ruan Ackermann and before that by Warwick Tecklenburg - so that Whiteley has the option to roam the field.
Vermeulen is a no-nonsense ball carrier who is exceptional at the breakdown as well. At his best there are few that are on par with him, but it will be interesting to see if the Boks use him in his more traditional role - especially as they lacked a big ball carrier last season - or rather as a more supportive role.
Of course all of this will also depend on the selection of the opensider - and with Jaco Kriel as the only recognised six in the squad - it won’t be uncommon to expect him to face the French next month either. But Kriel is at his deadliest out wide as well, meaning more emphasis at the breakdown and in the trenches will be needed.
Coetzee could go for Siya Kolisi - who has been employed as an opensider in the Heyneke Meyer era, but is more of a hybrid between six and seven, and extremely hard working. But the choice will mean sacrificing the sniping role at the breakdown. Still Kolisi’s workrate will give the Boks something extra, and perhaps free up Vermeulen more to play the role he envisages.
Of course all of this rests on getting good set-piece ball, but the Boks should be able to do that, at home. Coetzee said he selected Whiteley on the basis that he was the best No 8 in the country, and feels he and Vermeulen would complement each other.
“When I selected Warren as the captain of South Africa, he was first selected based on his performances. He had consistent performances throughout as the best No 8 in the country. I had numerous chats to Duane Vermeulen and interestingly in terms of the leadership they complement each other very well.
“It would be a great combination to have a player like Warren and Duane in the side and when I coached at the Stormers, the chat around Duane was always about being able to play 7 - and he plays like a number 7 at times - a blindside flank, where he is really a great lineout expert, strong defensively, runs off nine and sometimes Duane plays towards the ball as well.
“Then you have Warren, our roaming number eight, that plays in the wide channel, like he does for the Lions, and with linking ability. If you look at a 7/8 combination, it is such a logical combination, with an openside flank who will have his role. I am happy with the combination of Duane, Warren and one of the other flanks at six.”
Coetzee added that the attacking mindset employed by the franchises - and the Lions in particular - would be followed through and he expects Whiteley and Smith to work well together in this regard.
“If you looked at what has happened in Super Rugby, you see the attacking mindset of our franchises. Obviously when the team has an attacking mindset you will always use your loose forwards to give you width and to give you the option in the wider channel as well. He does it well for the Lions and so does the other flanks for the different provinces.
“In all the franchises it is not something new, but a similar thing, and I am happy that we have Warren, that is used to that role, that will be the same at the Springboks. If you look at Franco (Smith) as attack coach, that is also his philosophy and there is consistency in the thinking along those lines.”
In the end the proof will be in the pudding, as they say, but last season Coetzee preached more expansive rugby and then played a different game plan to the Lions, which negated some of the strengths of players like Whiteley and in particular Elton Jantjies.
This season, with more time and planning, this will hopefully not be the case.