Springboks

Positional health: Where Boks stand

2018-06-25 12:21
Aphiwe Dyantyi (Gallo)

Cape Town – Rassie Erasmus is likely to be leaning more toward satisfaction, in broadest terms, than despondency over where his rebuilding Springboks stand following completion of the home England series.

Albeit still with certain gremlins, the Boks completed the primary objective of beating Eddie Jones’s charges (2-1) and did enough to suggest they should keep getting better, and more street-smart, in the lead-up to RWC 2019.

Bolstered by some likely, key returnees from injury, the head coach will seek continued, steady improvement as the next objectives - the Rugby Championship and a European end-of-year-tour - loom.

Here is my appraisal of their current health, by positional department …

Back three

The Springboks are unrecognisable - in all the right ways - in this area from so much of the Allister Coetzee tenure.

It was the prior coach’s Achilles heel, but with better identification of personnel, Erasmus is already beginning to allay fears here.

Willie le Roux looked fresh, resurgent and dangerous at fullback in the first two Tests, while the baptisms of exciting young wings Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi as offensive forces proved largely promising indeed.

A lingering concern, of course, will be the way the Boks were twice in a row stung in wide channels early on (both Jo’burg and Bloemfontein) by high-tempo England attacks, suggesting lots of work lies ahead over defensive adhesiveness and alignment.

But shall we put that down to pure naivety?

Slippery, versatile Warrick Gelant also hovers pleasingly; he looked competent in wet conditions when it came to his “basics” at the back.

Hopefully we haven’t heard the last from canny footballer Ruan Combrinck at Test level, Curwin Bosch is too talented to be wholly overlooked, while Makazole Mapimpi is another outright “flier” bubbling under.

Verdict: Much improved situation, though inexperience a lingering worry.

Centres

Depth is gradually building, I guess.

Although he provokes mixed feelings, the very seasoned Frans Steyn may yet have to be lured back into the Bok fold (assuming he is up for it?) at some point as he could take charge of the No 12 berth, serving as that useful “extra flyhalf”, especially on damp days.

Both Damian de Allende and Andre Esterhuizen (at least in the June opener against Wales) had their moments at inside centre, whilst the outside berth is a close duel between Jesse Kriel and Lukhanyo Am.

Euro-based, 35-cap Jan Serfontein is another who could sneak back into the mix later in the year, perhaps offering possibilities for both slots.

Verdict: Both berths still a little fluid, no absolute “must pick”.

Flyhalves/scrumhalves

Handre Pollard has almost indisputably cemented himself in as the premier pivot, at least for the next few major assignments. (But remember that he also offers Dan Carter-like options as an inside centre.)

The back-up to him stays a quandary, as fairly similar-styled Robert du Preez had a mini-nightmare on brief debut off the bench in Washington DC, and Elton Jantjies floundered in the Newlands mud.

Erasmus is making positive noises anew about Stormers wunderkind Damian Willemse, and his undoubted X-factor could make a huge difference if he is blooded successfully at the highest level soon.

Scrumhalf? Well, Faf de Klerk largely shone for his tenacity and sprightliness against the English -- even if his game management remains a work in progress -- and deserves the main jersey for the time being. He must try to stave off penalties more consciously, though.

But resources beneath him remain shrouded in uncertainty: whippet Embrose Papier sports only nine minutes of activity across two Test matches, and Ivan van Zyl is still seriously callow at this level too.

Verdict: No 10 stocks slightly better than No 9.

Loose forwards

The massive plus in the series, of course, was veteran Duane Vermeulen confirming what an asset he will remain for the World Cup … one of few true “aura” factors in the Bok ranks at this stage.

He will play fitfully over the next few months, but that should at least allow for cerebral Warren Whiteley – albeit so different a player in style and build – to pick up his Test career again after a lengthy layoff.

Pieter-Steph du Toit has been pleasing as a blindside flanker, though he continues to offer big second-row credentials as well. Jean-Luc du Preez? Jury still out.

Siya Kolisi was inspiring as Bok skipper from the open-side berth, and robust in general exchanges … though question marks remain about whether he really fits the bill in “fetching” terms. Still, he needs some feet-up time!

Once fit again, former Lions tearaway Jaco Kriel could challenge for a roaming flanker’s role.

Verdict: Solid pool, but first choices not completely cast in stone.

Locks

The consistency of Franco Mostert and heartening strides of lanky newcomer RG Snyman meant the Boks didn’t suffer in this area despite the absences of proven figures Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.

Once the latter two are back in the frame – and with Du Toit, as mentioned, always interested in the locking berth, too – South Africa should have an embarrassment of riches heading into next year.

The good thing about someone like 2.06m Snyman is his adaptability between four and five: for example, he could easily partner Etzebeth by assuming the latter responsibility.

Marvin Orie is another combative soul not that far off readiness for major Tests.

Verdict: Vast array of talent, especially once some seniors fit again.

Front row

Between Tendai Mtawarira and Steven Kitshoff, the Boks can sleep blissfully, knowing that the loosehead role is wonderfully covered for the period up to and into the Japan-hosted World Cup.

Hooker is also increasingly marked by clarity: I’d say a pecking order of strongman Malcolm Marx (now back in action) and tigerish Bongi Mbonambi as his immediate, extremely capable back-up is the way ahead for some time.

And yes, I still like the Schalk Brits possibilities as a vastly experienced third option, despite the challenges of his unusually advanced age.

There are decent tightheads around, but with some currently sporting certain reservations: young Wilco Louw should (no, hopefully will) return fired-up soon after being overplayed in early season, Frans Malherbe remains ring-rusty after his neck woes, and Thomas du Toit still needs plenty more time on his “wrong” side of the scrum to become a formidable international element.

We shouldn’t forget that another “converted” prop, Coenie Oosthuizen, may be challenging anew by nearer the end of this year, but there could also still be a No 3 gap, considering the fluid look, for Saracens’ Vincent Koch - a formidable force on his good days.

Verdict: Loosehead and hooker pretty settled, No 3 not yet nailed.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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