Johannesburg - The probable presence of Justin Tipuric in the Welsh team that the Springboks face in their last test match of 2018 should ensure the same old recurring question will be asked after the Cardiff game - why did the coach replace captain Siya Kolisi before the end?
Actually, Tipuric’s presence in the Welsh team should really prompt a pre-selection question for the Boks. Shouldn’t Rassie Erasmus be considering changes to his team that will enable Francois Louw to start as a specialist fetcher?
One of the things that has been learned during the northern hemisphere autumn series is that the role of the specialist openside is still crucial. Sam Underhill was outstanding for England against the All Blacks, and England struggled against Japan when they eschewed that type of player for the sake of pre-World Cup experimentation.
Josh van der Flier was good for Ireland in their win over the All Blacks, and it was clear in that game that the Kiwis struggle without the injured Sam Cane, who is their nearest replacement to what the world class Richie McCaw used to provide for them. The abilities of Michael Hooper and David Pocock are well known, and they shone in the Wallaby loss to Wales two weeks ago, a game where the Australians were actually the better team for much of it.
That observation though only makes the achievement of Tipuric in that drought breaking win for Wales more notable. Now that he has emerged from the shadow cast by the recently retired Sam Warburton, the former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain, Tipuric is making the Welsh No 7 (the numbering is different to South Africa, where the opensider wears the No 6) jersey his own, and has celebrated his newfound status with two consecutive man of the match performances - against Scotland and against the Wallabies and Hooper/Pocock.
Louw, when he has played, has also done his bit to show the value of the specialist opensider. When he came on, he was instrumental in turning the game the Springbok way late in the match against France in Paris. He also played his part in keeping Scotland out in the closing stages of the Edinburgh match this past weekend, although in that game we were provided with evidence of why it is possible for the Boks to go without a specialist.
PLAYERS SHOULD HAVE THE ABILITY TO DO THE DIRTY WORK WHEN REQUIRED
That reason is encapsulated in one name. Malcolm Marx. Or maybe let’s make that two. Malcolm Marx and Duane Vermeulen. There are others of course, and these days all players in a team are supposed to have the ability to do the dirty work when it is required. But those two players, when they are on the field, make it possible for the Boks to play with a back-row that is lacking a genuine openside and that plays to different strengths.
Kolisi was back to his best against Scotland and also contributed to the Bok breakdown dominance that won the game after a poor performance against France. But with Pieter-Steph du Toit in the form of his life at blindside flank and playing such an important role, and Vermeulen also indispensable because of what he brings, it does make sense for the captain to make way when Louw is introduced, as he should be, in the last quarter of the game. And that is particularly so if Marx is also going to be replaced then.
The reason the replacement of Kolisi has been questioned is because he is the captain and there is a perception that you don’t replace your captain. There have even been assertions that coach Rassie Erasmus needs to be questioned on this as the other international coaches don’t replace their captain’s during a game.
That assertion though is founded on fallacious observation. It is true that the All Blacks didn’t replace Kieran Read against Ireland, when frankly they should have. But Ireland did replace Rory Best, their captain, in the last quarter. There were no questions asked by the Irish media afterwards about why that was done, for there shouldn’t be a need to.
Hookers seldom see out a full game, and it doesn’t matter that they are captain. Ask Augustin Crevy, the Argentina captain. He is almost never on the field at the final whistle. Neither was Stephen Moore when he captained Australia. Ditto John Smit, who had Victor Matfield take over the Bok captaincy reins when Bismarck du Plessis came on late in games.
You don’t have to be a hooker to be a captain that doesn’t see out the full game. Greig Laidlaw, Scotland’s captain and scrumhalf, left the field even before Kolisi did in Edinburgh.
England’s Dylan Hartley is another more modern example of a captain who doubles as a hooker and doesn’t get to see out a full game. It is probably one of the reasons England coach Eddie Jones has opted for a co-captaincy going forward, with Hartley now sharing the leadership role with Owen Farrell.
CO-CAPTAINCY IS A MODERN AND DEVELOPING TREND
The co-captaincy approach is a modern trend that is developing. The first team to do it was the Highlanders in Super Rugby, and it has been followed by several other teams in different competitions and at different levels of the sport.
Even if they don’t announced co-captains, many teams will subscribe to the principle behind it, and you will often hear reference to there being a leadership group, rather than a single captain who makes all the calls on his own. It wasn’t just on the field that Matfield played a big leadership role during the Smit era, and Fourie du Preez completed a leadership triumvirate.
Kolisi is the face of the team and the appointed leader, but the leadership group approach is in operation at the Boks now, as it should be when you have an experienced captain like Warren Whiteley in the squad, plus a recent Bok captain in Eben Etzebeth as well as a strong experienced leadership figure in Duane Vermeulen.
The latter was excellent as the onfield captain when Kolisi was off the field when the Boks clinched the England series in Bloemfontein in June, and Whiteley did the same when the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington.
There is nothing sinister in Kolisi being replaced during a game. It is standard practice in world rugby in the modern era and the Boks have a strong enough leadership group to make it possible. With Tipuric posing such a threat at the Millennium Stadium, it would come as a surprise if Kolisi sees out the whole of Saturday’s game - it could depend on how effective Marx is and how long the starting hooker spends on the field - and it really shouldn’t be a talking point. Professional rugby is not contested by teams of 15, but squads of 23.
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