Fetchers in SA … rare as perlemoen

    2017-02-16 13:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – If it was something many of us already suspected, Nollis Marais hit the nail on the head anyway.

    Quoted after the Bulls’ return from a pre-season expedition across the Indian Ocean, their head coach warned that New Zealand teams would be formidable once again in Super Rugby 2017 – the title has been monopolised by that country for four of the last five years – given that they are “far ahead” at breakdown/turnover play.

    Despite his charges beating a watered-down Chiefs side 28-7 in a Ballymore friendly, Marais said he realised anew how accomplished NZ outfits were on the ground – and warned that the department was currently a weak spot in the SA game generally.

    The Bulls mastermind isn’t wrong, regarding an area that was much closer to a strength than liability in this country up to some two or three seasons back.

    And the reason for the demise probably isn’t too hard to pinpoint: the country has been particularly hard hit in the overseas exodus phenomenon by the number of specialist open-side flankers who have been lured away by stronger currencies.

    I would argue that all of Francois Louw (Bath), Marcell Coetzee (Ulster), Heinrich Brussow (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes) and Deon Stegmann (Honda Heat) still count among the very best ball-stealers from our shores: if perlemoen poaching is a scourge of our coastline, proven No 6s are fast succumbing to the “plunder” as well.

    Louw, Coetzee and Brussow, of course, are all multi-capped Springboks of indisputable international quality at various times in their careers whilst former Bulls stalwart Stegmann may have his critics, but the six-cap Bok was just learning to curb a penchant for expensive penalty concession in his last couple of seasons at Loftus whenever injuries weren’t curtailing him.

    In a severely forgettable 2016 Bok Test campaign generally, UK-based Louw wasn’t at his best in nine appearances, but remains a solid option going forward.

    Perhaps even more hearteningly, the reasonably “forgotten” Coetzee made a successful comeback after almost 10 months on the sidelines with a knee ligament injury for Ulster at the weekend, helping the Irish outfit down Edinburgh and by all accounts looking suitably sharp for an hour.

    The former Sharks favourite, still only 25, may well put in a strong, fresh challenge for the Bok open-side berth in 2017, a critical attempted bounce-back season by the national side -- he combines good strength and huge industry on his feet with excellent over-the-ball skills at ruck time.

    But yes, he is based in foreign climes and that doesn’t help the more immediate quest by South African sides to get their breakdown games in order for the imminent Super Rugby campaign.

    Hardly helped by the fact that natural No 6s like Roelof Smit (Bulls), Keegan Daniel (Sharks), Steph de Wit (Stormers) and CJ Velleman (Kings) will make delayed starts to Super Rugby through injury, the general, home-based SA cupboard in open-siders doesn’t look well-stocked for round one in just over a week’s time.

    There is a trend, and not always a compelling one, among our franchises to try to “convert” – or at least contemplate doing so -- either blindside flankers or eighthmen into fetchers to ease the shortfall in that area.

    Frankly, the jury is very much out on whether, for example, tough No 7-type grafters Uzair Cassiem (Cheetahs), Jean Deysel (Sharks) and Rynhardt Elstadt (Stormers), or Sharks No 8 Philip van der Walt, are really suited to poaching duties, a berth where most top nations place a high emphasis on outright speed, athleticism, low centres of gravity and often deft hand-skills as well.

    Remember that as classic “mole” No 6 options shrank all around him, Bok coach Allister Coetzee even took the highly dubious step of fielding that gigantic, not exactly whippet-like specimen Willem Alberts at No 6 in the defeat to England at Twickenham in November; the Bone Collector was one of the better Boks on the day, but sadly it had little to do with his breakdown work.

    Nizaam Carr is the Bok open-side incumbent, having played there in the further tour losses to both Italy and Wales, but he favours the No 8 jersey at the Stormers and didn’t set the house alight for South Africa in those unmemorable matches.

    At Newlands, they wrestle an ongoing dilemma, in fact, over which of Carr, Siya Kolisi, Elstadt or the rangy Sikhumbuzo Notshe is actually the best option for the open-side task.

    Perhaps only two franchises, the Lions and Kings, will be able to start Super Rugby 2017 reasonably chipper about their specialist resources at No 6.

    The Lions, last year’s losing finalists, can now add SA Sevens star Kwagga Smith to tearaway Jaco Kriel in that berth; it could be an interesting tussle as Smith is probably a more natural fetcher than Kriel, whose best work is almost always in linking, marauding open play.

    As for the much-maligned Eastern Cape outfit, they will have that ceaseless dynamo Chris Cloete back, fit again in the midst as their turnover maestro – though he must curb a tendency toward penalty-leaking over-eagerness – and the 21-year-old CJ Velleman is also expected to be available again from April.

    Sadly, of course, you wonder whether the Kings will have the class in other areas to be able to exploit any majesty in the ball-stealing department.

    There is a further snag on the SA Super Rugby scene, when it comes to breakdown proficiency: two of the best pilfering hookers, Bismarck du Plessis of Montpellier and Lyon’s Deon Fourie (remember him?) have also flown the coop.

    Before his departure at the end of 2014, the Stormers/WP often considered the tigerish Fourie so competent on the deck that he actually wore the No 6 jersey at times.

    The Stormers’ breakdown game has certainly not gone forward since he disappeared to France.

    But as Nollis Marais alluded to, that is a more widespread hallmark in South Africa …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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