Springboks

Dilemma: Who’d lead Boks if they played today?

2018-04-23 13:25
Handre Pollard (Gallo Images)
Handre Pollard (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Perhaps he has an alternative, more optimistic view, but if new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus had to put out a Springbok team immediately, it seems he would face a serious dearth of options on the captaincy front.

With so many more front-line figures for the leadership still out of action, or lacking in best form, and someone like Duane Vermeulen not yet showing any special signals that he is ready to commit wholeheartedly to the Bok cause again, the pickings for the task of running out in front for the Test team look decidedly lean as things stand.

Erasmus is likely to be pinning his hopes on at least one of the most attractive, logical candidates - Warren Whiteley of the Lions and Stormers stalwart Eben Etzebeth - returning to Super Rugby action and sharpening up sufficiently in time for the June programme of Tests (one against Wales in neutral Washington, three at home against England).

There are five rounds of Super Rugby matches each for the Lions, Stormers and Bulls and four for the Sharks between now and the June “window”.

That may still be enough time for one or both of those two pivotal players, in particular, to ease back toward international readiness if medical clearance facilitates it.

Remember that Whiteley is effectively the incumbent SA captain, as he has not been officially relieved of that duty (and why would you, frankly?) despite missing as many as 11 Tests through injury since helping engineer 37-14 and 37-15 triumphs respectively in the first two of three home fixtures against France in 2017.

Those were also his first two experiences of leading his country.

The rangy, charismatic No 8 appears to be in a touch-and-go situation with regard to rehab from his knee injury picked up much earlier in the Super Rugby season against the Blues; he was all set to conveniently return for the start of the Lions’ four-leg Australasian tour but then felt a “click” in that always complex area of the anatomy in training before departure and stayed behind indefinitely.

Whilst there are some whispers that he should yet make the cut for Bok requirements in June, that hardly seems set in stone.

Meanwhile there is even more of a fog of doubt, it appears, around Etzebeth, the word from the Stormers camp to Sport24 being that it is hoped he will finally begin his rugby year after a shoulder-related layoff around the time they host the Lions in a Newlands derby on May 26.

That’s a pretty demanding match for the big enforcer to brush off the cobwebs in, and also only a week before the Wales date.

Nevertheless, if Whiteley isn’t deemed ready by then and Etzebeth is, the latter would still be a decent enough candidate to keep the Bok leadership in an acting capacity.

There is a fairly strong case for saying the Bok woes in the dying embers of Allister Coetzee’s coaching tenure didn’t have a glaring amount to do with Etzebeth’s captaincy.

But it’s if neither player is fit for early-June duty that the real leadership pickle, you’d think, faces Erasmus … especially for the priority that is the series against Eddie Jones’s England, as the Bok side facing the Welsh a week earlier may be notably experimental.

The situation is aggravated by one key phenomenon: the worrying lack of personal form for his Stormers franchise of their skipper Siya Kolisi.

Current holder of the Bok open-side flank jersey, the 26-year-old was also South Africa’s vice-captain when the Coetzee tenure ended with the loss to weakened Wales on the 2017 end-of-year tour.

But he has been a surprisingly lethargic presence for the labouring Capetonians in recent weeks, a period that has seen them play second fiddle in successive derbies against the Bulls, Lions and Sharks.

Perhaps Kolisi has simply played too much rugby, and is in need of some sort of rotational break?

Whatever the case, he has not been nearly as assertive at No 6 as you would usually expect of him, missing vital tackles, failing to be a notable nuisance over the ball at the breakdown and generally going AWOL for unacceptable periods.

There was one flash of magic in the latest Stormers reverse, at Kings Park, when he made a big bust-out just before halftime and offloaded with perfect timing and accuracy to Raymond Rhule on his inside for a try.

But Kolisi, for all the range of known skills he possesses, is not producing sufficient consistency at the moment to look a shoe-in for the Test team, never mind as a temporary captain.

So that leaves an even tighter field of alternatives and, to my mind, if you had to name a Bok skipper for a Test right now, the most sensible choice would be Bulls flyhalf Handre Pollard.

The incumbent green-and-gold pivot, he has been steadily nearing in recent weeks his form of three or four years ago, before he got that freak cruciate knee ligament injury in training that set him back for some time both medically and in confidence terms.

Pollard, still only 24 but active in first-class rugby since the age of 19, has been a calm general for the Bulls in their regrowth this year and could probably be described as favourite for the Bok No 10 jersey in June, despite the credible challenges of Elton Jantjies and others.

He is also, of course, a possibility at inside centre, too, given his rugby brain and physical-requirement qualities.

Even though he doesn’t captain his franchise – centre Burger Odendaal, not yet Test-capped, carries that mantle at present – Pollard has “history” as a leader; he led the SA under-20 side in his last of three years with them (2014, when his Baby Boks were tournament runners-up in New Zealand).

Immediate Bok team? Pollard’s the man to best answer a leadership SOS …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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