JOHANNESBURG - In exactly 30 days the Springboks open their 2017 season with the first of three Tests against France at Loftus Versfeld. Here are the five headaches Bok boss Allister Coetzee has to solve.
Much of the blame for last year’s disastrous performances was laid at the door of the number of inexperienced players picked on the back of their Super Rugby form. Here one thinks of back-up hookers, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi, loose-forward Warren Whiteley, half-backs Faf de Klerk and Rudy Paige, flyhalf Elton Jantjies, and even centre Lionel Mapoe. But a form team, based on what individuals have done in Super Rugby this year, reveals Coetzee would again have to pick several men who have little experience in the Test arena; and will he gamble on them coming good at a level they haven’t played at before? Finding the right balance between youth and experience will be one of Coetzee’s biggest balancing acts in the comings weeks.
Following on from the above point, players like SP Marais, Andries Coetzee and Clayton Blommetjies are all exciting fullbacks who perform strongly for their Super Rugby teams, but do any of them have Test star qualities, like a Ben Smith? The same applies to the wings. It is the case in a number of positions where not enough young players were properly groomed over the last three or four years to take over certain roles in the Test team. Also, with so many players having opted to continue playing overseas the number of players to pick from just isn’t big enough.
Probably the most intriguing aspect of Coetzee’s selection will be who he brings back from overseas to play in the must-win series against France. Prop Steven Kitshoff will be in the squad - only because he has a national contract and is headed back to SA from France - but there have been whispers that Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn will also come back from Montpellier to bring stability and experience to the centres and front row. But with Coetzee unsure about who his best wings are and few men locally showing they are world class, what about JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana returning? Don’t rule it out. Of course, Duane Vermeulen’s name has also been mentioned - as a possible captain, too - while Francois Louw and Francois Hougaard would also have reason to be optimistic for a recall.
Mmm. Who will it be? The front runners are Warren Whiteley of the Lions and Siya Kolisi of the Stormers. They have stood out as strong leaders this year, with Whiteley having done the job at provincial level for a few years and Kolisi showing he has all the attributes to be a good leader, too. But, and this is key, are they automatic first choices in their positions in the starting Bok team? Then there’s Eben Etzebeth, but does he possess the right qualities? Some have said Lood de Jager, and what about Duane Vermeulen? If he was playing in South Africa he’d be the man, but he plays in France.
What will Coetzee and his coaching team dish up in June? What influence will Franco Smith and Brendan Venter have on the team and the kind of rugby they play? Will they have any say in the men who’ll get selected? These are just some of the questions floating around about the Boks’ game plan and who best will make it work. The Lions’ Super Rugby consistency over the last two years stems from their coaching team picking the same players week in and week out. Will the Boks be able to do this?
In conclusion A Super Rugby form team will be vastly different to the side that will run out against France next month.