Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Did SA Rugby – primarily through director of rugby and Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus, if so – suddenly feel they had to read the riot act to some degree this week to domestic Super Rugby franchises?
I find it difficult to escape that impression … despite the politically correct and arguably vague reminder from national headquarters of “communication lines” rather than any hard-and-fast rotational-list stipulations for specific Bok players, between Erasmus and the various franchise coaching staffs.
Certainly when it comes to the two South African teams playing overseas opponents in the latest round, the Stormers (versus Reds in Brisbane on Friday) and Bulls (versus Jaguares in Pretoria, Saturday), a handful of starting XV or more complete matchday sit-outs by staple Bok figures leave them with a stronger sense of vulnerability on paper than might have been the case with a more staggered approach to rotation.
While other factors can come into play in Super Rugby team selection – not least the perennial bugbear of injuries, which can throw best strategic intentions into turmoil - it just seems as if the need to pull out particularly prize figures from contention this weekend came via urgent decree, if you like.
How else do you explain at Loftus, for example, Bulls mastermind Pote Human issuing the curveball in midweek of a team noticeably stripped of BOTH of their most consistently influential backs – Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel – simultaneously?
Put it this way: the Jaguares, who tend to struggle for wins in South Africa but also have a habit of running hosts close, will be looking at the enemy team-sheet and realising that they potentially now have a better chance of recording a mild upset on Saturday.
Pollard, always game for taking the ball flat rather than excessively deep in the pocket, has been enormously influential in executing the Bulls’ playing style – often conservative, territorial-based and with a high premium on kicking penalty-goal opportunities – while Kriel has looked a much more rounded player at outside centre this year, while maintaining his reputation for commendably high energy levels and a healthy sense of opportunism.
Flyhalf Pollard kicks his heels against the South Americans at a time when he is leading points scorer in the competition by some distance on 96, and Kriel is the Bulls’ joint leading try-scorer on four with wing Rosko Specman.
While both Manie Libbok and Dylan Sage are useful enough respective replacements this week, they have been far less a part of the first-team furniture over the first few rounds, have different strengths and drawbacks, and the disruption to continuity may be noticeable.
For crying out loud, could not Pollard have sat out one week and Kriel the next, or vice versa, for less of a shock to the Bulls’ back-division system?
It just seems like dubious planning … or (more relevantly, maybe) the forcing of a hand.
Meanwhile in faraway Australia, the already reeling-from-injury Stormers have, at an acutely inconvenient juncture, yanked key front-row figures and co-Boks Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi from their starting line-up – although there is the relative consolation that they will still get a gallop off the bench against the Reds.
Both men have been in fine personal form despite the Capetonians surrendering both games on the earlier New Zealand leg of their tour; if there’s one thing the otherwise blunt Stormers boast, after all, it is a sturdy scrum – and those two are also key figures in their rolling maul initiatives, don’t forget.
Yet now, at a time when major-name pack figures like Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and JD Schickerling have already headed homeward, they compromise their engine-room efficiency further by curtailing both loosehead prop Kitshoff and hooker Mbonambi to the “splinters” in Queensland … a bit of a must-win occasion for restoring both squad-wide confidence and their knockout-phase credentials.
With respect to former Lions utility front-rower Corne Fourie, who has looked solid as an impact player so far in the season, he is not quite the powerhouse Kitshoff is, either at the set-piece or as ball-carrier.
The irony about the sudden rash of Bok rotations in the competition, of course, is that the Stormers doggedly continue to field national captain Siya Kolisi, who has begun all six matches so far and has seemed more in need of a break than virtually any other green-and-gold favourite from their ranks.
Shouldn’t the open-side flanker really have sat out one of the games in New Zealand which, let’s face it, always looked less winnable on paper for the Stormers than the brace of games (Rebels after this one) in Australia?
Even before the Etzebeth and other pack-linked setbacks, remember, loose forward was one area of their tour squad where they have not lacked significant depth.
Instead Kolisi bites the bullet – admirably in some respects, of course – with another run-out from the front against the Reds, the spin from the camp being that his presence is forced by the virus of senior absenteeism: this is also a player who suffered at times last year, I felt, from gross over-exposure and may even be feeling some lingering after-effects into the new campaign.
I just do not, in broadest terms, currently pick up any special sense of harmony or cohesion between Plattekloof and the franchise coaches.
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