PRETORIA – The spate of injuries that have suddenly befallen the Springbok team will force coach Allister Coetzee to select a predominantly local, more specifically Lions-based side, ahead of the first Test against France at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Hard man Duane Vermeulen, along with Stormers centre Damian de Allende, have been ruled out of the Test, while Lions utility back Lionel Mapoe is doubtful due to a hamstring injury.
Vermeulen was always going to be doubtful for the opening Test as he played for French club Toulon in the Top 14 final on Sunday, and having picked up a shoulder injury, the door is now open for Siya Kolisi to start at number seven, with Jaco Kriel set for a Test start at openside flank.
The severity of Vermeulen’s injury will only be assessed upon his arrival, but this will buy Coetzee enough time to see whether the combination of Warren Whiteley, Kolisi and Kriel is the best going forward, with all three having shown good form in Super Rugby.
“This is little disruption, to be honest. We have been preparing with the players that have been at our camps, especially last week’s camp in Plett. Obviously a player like Duane comes with massive experience and good knowledge of the French, but I will wait and see when he gets here. But I have no doubt, given the opportunity given to other players and the attitude I’ve seen in the past week, there is a clear indication that they will bring it, without a doubt,” Coetzee said.
As much as Vermeulen’s loss will be a massive blow in terms of dominating the physical stakes in what is expected to be a bruising battle against the French, it is the available loose trio’s ability to fit in to the expansive game that will be a bonus for Coetzee, who often cites finding a balance in the way he wants his team to play.
While the scales may be tipped in favour of Kolisi filling in the vacant number seven jersey, Coetzee could also consider starting with Oupa Mohoje, who is a better lineout option and thrives on the trench warfare, with Kolisi possibly moving to openside flank.
Coetzee looks spoilt for choice with his options at loose forward and with Jean-Luc du Preez also coming into the reckoning, it seems like the Springboks won’t be crippled much by Vermeulen’s absence.
“What we should look at is the way we want to play, obviously, and what his assets as a player have been, in the sense of Duane Vermeulen. You have to weigh up set-piece, big ball carrier and a lot of things and what we are facing. What you gain on the swings you might lose on the roundabouts, so there is no perfect fit,” said Coetzee.
"I’ve got to try and make sure we have the best of what Duane could bring. But it is not about Duane only, we’ve got quality players in the country and I’m sure they will fit into the plan."
Coetzee’s biggest selection, though, will be in the backline with De Allende ruled out because of a haematoma, while Mapoe struggles with a hamstring injury. This leaves Coetzee’s options thin at centre and at wing.
Mapoe will be in a race against time to gain full fitness this week, as he will be in a controlled training schedule. This means Stormers utility back Dillon Lleyds could possibly make his Test debut on the right wing, with Cortnall Skosan on the left. Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel seem to be the preferred centre pairing, with Andries Coetzee being the obvious choice at fullback.
Coetzee could also look at Frans Steyn at centre and Francois Hougaard at scrumhalf, but the duo would come into the squad at a late stage, with the coach opting to go with players he has worked with recently.
“We’ve not just lost Damian and Lionel, we’ve also lost Lukhanyo Am so we’ve lost three centres. We might see that (locally-based players) for the right reasons, because we are rewarding players who have performed well and have trained with the team, and it will be the second week into training before the first Test.”