Loosies: Lions’ snag could become Rassie’s

    2018-05-17 09:55

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Has anyone stopped to properly consider the link between the Lions’ reduced efficiency in Super Rugby this year and the absence for large tracts of skilful, tearaway loose forwards Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel?

    And perhaps even more importantly, what impact the situation will have on short- to medium-term Test plans by new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus?

    The whippet-like Kriel, of course, hasn’t played at all for the franchise this year, having suffered a serious shoulder injury last season.

    The Lions released a statement just over a fortnight ago, confirming that he would play no part in the remainder of their roster in the competition and had been signed by English Premiership club Gloucester for the next northern-hemisphere season - he will meet up anew with his former Lions head coach Johan Ackermann.

    Whiteley, at least, is still a firm contractual part of the Johannesburg franchise’s mix, although fans of the slightly flagging outfit - now boasting only a 50 percent win record, although they remain top of the SA conference - are understandably anxious about his slow recovery from a knee problem.

    Latest reports suggest the preferred Bok captain (when fit) during the later phase of Allister Coetzee’s two-year green-and-gold tenure may be able to see service for the Lions again just before the June recess, giving him a chance of some activity during the three-Test home series against England.

    During the Lions’ charge to successive Super Rugby finals, in 2016 and 2017, both Whiteley (doubling as a genuinely inspirational, dynamic leader) and Kriel were pivotal parts of their fabric – especially in an attacking sense.

    Both possess the sort of deft-footedness and athleticism to be elusive even from seemingly congested situations in general play, and wonderful linking players with the backline as well.

    Kriel is especially nippy - an elegant marauder right out of the Rob Louw school.

    It is not as though the Lions have lacked speed or flair in the duo’s absence: former SA Sevens stalwart Kwagga Smith has had some sublime moments, and emerging tyro Hacjivah Dayimani is no slouch for X-factor, either.

    But both Smith, having changed rugby modes, and Dayimani, in his first full season of Super Rugby activity, are understandably just not fully in tune yet with the finer points of the Lions’ largely successful, high-tempo template of the last two or three years, and occasionally lost some effectiveness or prominence as a result.

    With a bit of luck, Whiteley will be back on board -- and increasingly back to his sharpest -- for both the Lions and Springboks pretty soon.

    Meanwhile Kriel could yet be a candidate for the Rugby Championship (given the relaxation of the Bok restrictions on overseas players) if he gets some encouraging comeback game-time beneath his belt for Gloucester ahead of it.

    He was one of few Boks to demonstrate true X-factor during a fleeting period in Allister Coetzee’s tenure last year when the national side showed welcome verve, mostly in a period involving some (convincingly) victorious Tests against France and Argentina.

    Without either of Whiteley and Kriel able to be in his most immediate thoughts, successor Erasmus is arguably saddled with a situation where he still sports plenty of brawny options for loose forward berths during June, but a relative dearth of silky “steppers”, if you like.

    That was a strong hallmark he demonstrated in no small measure during his own 36-cap international career; he was a good balancer in a Bok loose trio when someone like the earthy Andre Venter was the blindside flanker and Erasmus would more comfortably patrol the open side.

    As things stand, the chances look increasingly likely that Erasmus will be forced into putting out a trio comprising mostly direct, notably physical specimens.

    Unless he has a surprise speed merchant in mind for installation somewhere in the alliance, smart money suggests Siya Kolisi will start at No 6 for the first home Test against England, with either of big units Jean-Luc du Preez or Pieter-Steph du Toit (also an increasingly attractive proposition for the second row, though) on the blindside and maybe Du Preez’s twin brother Dan, cut from a near-identical cloth, as eighth-man.

    Should Erasmus be partial to veteran, proven scrapper Duane Vermeulen - just finished with his Toulon employment - then he is another who will naturally come strongly into the picture to fill the likely Whiteley void at eight, but also offer significantly contrasting qualities.

    The coach is smart enough to know that three “piledrivers” means certain sacrifices in finesse and genuine game-breaking possibilities.

    And will he want that?

    Perhaps not ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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