Loosies: Boks have shed the kilos

2016-06-23 16:29
Adriaan Strauss and Warren Whiteley (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Under Heyneke Meyer’s tenure, “gargantuan” tended to be a dominant theme for the Springbok loose trio.

His favoured combination, a lot of the time, was an alliance of Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen, although the injury-prone tendency of his beloved “Bone Collector” at blindside flank – Alberts – meant veteran utility factor Schalk Burger also got plenty of game-time.

Between them, the favoured trio tipped the scales at just short of 350kg, if you tally up Louw’s roughly 112kg battle-weight, Alberts’s particularly brawny 120kg and the 116kg of Vermeulen.

They were best suited to close-quarters scrapping, in the absence of a notable speed merchant among them, although did the business as a unit more often than not – particularly in heavier, northern hemisphere-like conditions.

Following the elbow-related fitness setback suffered by No 8 Vermeulen in Johannesburg last Saturday, Louw is now the lone survivor from that Meyer-era group in the starting loosie line-up named by new coach Allister Coetzee on Thursday for Saturday’s decisive final Test against Ireland at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

Although there is an outside chance he might have been preferred to a strangely sub-standard Vermeulen for the Port Elizabeth clash anyway, Lions captain Whiteley steps into the eighth-man void for his sixth cap and first Bok start.

The only other change to the XV which began the dramatic Highveld Test last Saturday was just as predictable, as Ruan Combrinck could hardly be ignored following his impactful second half off the bench, and starts in place of defensively vulnerable Lwazi Mvovo.

But by getting the rangy, clever-stepping Whiteley to join forces with Louw and Siya Kolisi for this key showdown – a home series loss to Ireland would instantly be translated by many to “disaster” in big red letters – Coetzee will know that this is now a combination with mobility a stronger quality than monstering, if you like.

Whiteley supposedly comes in at around 106kg, whilst Kolisi is not your typical blindsider (and detractors might argue that it shows?) at only some 101kg: it means the Boks have effectively shed some 10kg per man from Meyer’s most fancied trio.

Under the circumstances, you have to wonder if the Boks don’t intend, even if it goes a little against Coetzee’s conservative instincts, to play a slightly more fluid and adventurous ball-in-hand game in the Friendly City and avoid getting drawn into a pronounced arm-wrestle with the Irish.

They were worryingly “smashed” off the ball at times at both Newlands and Emirates Airline Park, even with a juggernaut like Vermeulen still in their midst, although there were also large periods in both games where it was difficult not to suspect the Boks were coming up a little short for true desire and urgency.

Springbok packs traditionally like to physically impose themselves on opponents, and it has only been happening in isolated individual cases in the series so far, rather than as a fire-in-belly, blanket assault.

But that is not to say that the Boks specifically intend to go all airy-fairy this weekend: there are still plenty of names in their engine room capable of dishing out big hits and bruises if they are mentally at the races.

Just for one thing, Coetzee reminded at his team announcement that someone like substitute Steven Kitshoff, almost certain to make a second-half Test debut in place of Tendai Mtawarira, is a “very, very strong ball-carrier” so he could be a source of go-forward at vital stages of the contest.

He also has the feasible option again, if things are not going entirely to plan, of shifting big lock Pieter-Steph du Toit to No 7 and summoning no-nonsense workaholic Franco Mostert to the second row.

Yet when you consider that Lions tearaway Jaco Kriel is also primed to make a debut at some point on Saturday, it almost seems to serve as further strong evidence that the Boks are gradually sacrificing ballast for guile in the back row.

Coetzee enthused that Whiteley is “effective in the wide channels and (for) the ground he covers”, appearing to suggest that he is expecting him – and possibly Kriel later on, too – to add verve to the Bok attacking dimensions.

Still, anyone fearing that South Africa may be “bullied” to some extent in the tighter exchanges given the surrender of bulk among their loose forwards, might also be under-estimating Whiteley’s tigerish nature and ability to get his body over the ball on his feet for smart turnovers.

And boy, could the Boks do with some of those on Saturday …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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