Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Israel Folau poses a clear and present danger to the Lions as they brace for the challenge of the visiting Waratahs in Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final at Emirates Airline Park.
If the seasoned Australian international fullback wasn’t already worthy of the title of “world’s best aerial player” in rugby before, he has been an even more compelling candidate for the mantle based on his showings in the (largely) southern-hemisphere franchise competition during 2018.
More often than not, Folau has truly ruled the skies with the trademark deft tactical kicking game of his own – including prolific receipts of his own attacking dabs and chips – but also because of his uncanny knack of winning supposedly 50-50 contests for often higher, hanging balls.
It helps being 1.95-m tall, of course, and not far short of 105kg, which gives you an automatic edge over most foes in physical terms.
Folau was enterprising and authoritative again in most departments in last Saturday’s dramatic, come-from-behind ‘Tahs quarter-final victory over the Highlanders: he and the other two “spine” players in the Aussie team’s backline, flyhalf Bernard Foley and centre Kurtley Beale, were pivotal in the outcome.
He should feel at least relatively at ease on the Highveld this weekend – even if not from an anticipated sizeable, heavily Lions-partial crowd – on a hard and fast pitch, and where the ball sails through the air handsomely and often in a benign, windless atmosphere.
But there is some solace for the home side, the favourites for the encounter, when it comes to neutralising the Folau threat: their own No 15, Andries Coetzee, has almost always been a bastion of assuredness himself this season, despite not having nearly Folau’s level of X-factor by reputation.
Hearteningly reported earlier this week to have signed a contract extension (along with skipper Warren Whiteley) to the end of next season, Coetzee has only reconfirmed – a little like Elton Jantjies, perhaps? – how much more his game seems to thrive when in a Lions rather than Springbok jersey.
I may well have been one of his harsher critics during the 2017 international year when the 28-year-old, from Bethal in Mpumalanga, played near-ceaselessly for the Boks – the closing stages of Allister Coetzee’s rocky coaching spell – and amassed 13 caps.
Admittedly not helped by being part of a broadly unimpressive back three far too much of the time, he looked impotent on the front foot (though crisp attacking opportunities didn’t exactly come by the bag-load) and that possibly had an impact on his unremarkable defensive side of things, too.
To his credit, though, and while being overlooked thus far by national successor Rassie Erasmus, Coetzee has roared back for his franchise in spirited fashion over recent months.
Somehow he has always managed to look a more dangerous, sometimes elusive figure going forward when playing for the red-and-whites, and this is reflected in some statistics that might surprise a few people.
For Coetzee, at least according to one stats source from the competition, currently lies fourth overall for most carries – 176, and the best by any South African.
But his “tidying-up” duties in his important berth have arguably been even more polished; he has kept mistakes to a minimum and his positional sense has usually been pretty hard to fault.
The Boks, so far in 2018, have had great, rejuvenated value out of Willie le Roux at fullback, and Warrick Gelant is also clearly being groomed for a bright future.
But if for any reason they require a “safe” character in the spot over the remainder of the Test year, Erasmus could do a lot worse than give Coetzee a fresh vote of confidence should the desire or circumstance arise.
Although not as lengthy a piece of timber as Folau, the Lions’ No 15 is also not the shortest figure you will ever see in the position, and no shrinking violet in aerial combat.
Coetzee may not be in the same league as Saturday’s likely direct rival for sheer game-breaking ability. But he’s also currently playing with encouraging heart and vigour, and that means you can’t eliminate the possibility that he equals or even edges the one-on-one duel at the weekend …
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