DURBAN – South Africa’s conveyor belt of quality loose forwards is still running like a smooth engine, and for a Springbok coach, there are often tiny margins separating players when it comes down to pencilling in the names for positions 6, 7 and 8.
A lot, of course, depends on the game plan the coach has in mind and in the case of South Africa and its policy on selecting overseas-based players of 30 caps or more, there is the difficulty of knowing just what kind of form those players are in because you are not comparing apples with apples (Super Rugby v the Northern Hemisphere competitions).
On overseas players, it needs to be mentioned that Marcell Coetzee would surely have been picked had he not suffered another serious knee injury playing for Ulster.
As things stand now, with just five weeks to the first Test against France, Super Rugby has enlightened Allister Coetzee to the form players in the country, and there is not a lot of time for players coming back from injury to state their case.
A bolter like Philip van der Walt springs to mind, and Daniel du Preez is barely back from a groin injury.
An addendum to the scenario is that Coetzee’s new captain could well come from the loose trio, and the captain needs be a guaranteed starter. So, with all that out of the way, let’s look at seven options and narrow it down to three.
Pros: The Lions captain is a classic No 8 in how he reads the game and knows where to pop up to ensure continuity on attack. He is a hard-working, inspiring captain and a very good link between forwards and backs.
Cons: Whiteley had his opportunities last year at international level and generally did not step up. He tended to disappear for periods in tight Test matches. As a ball-carrier, he does not always generate momentum.
Pros: He was one of the five nominees for the IRB Player of the Year award in 2014, and with good reason. He was Coetzee’s first-choice No 8 at the start of last season before injury struck. He is a robust ball-carrier and a savage defender. He commands respect from friend and foe.
Cons: Playing at Toulon, we are not sure how fit he is. He was outspoken late last year about the problems facing SA rugby, which might have made him some enemies. It is difficult to find too much fault with his game at No 8 apart from his lack of genuine pace.
Pros: He is a very good carrier and has the acceleration to take the half-gap. His defence is top-notch. He can scavenge for the ball on the ground, hence Heyneke Meyer’s plan to make him an opensider, and he pops up in that position occasionally for the Stormers. He has proven leadership ability, and has a very good work-rate. A strong contender to captain the Boks – but he has to make the side first!
Cons: While he is an athletic carrier, he is not the hulking ball-carrier that the Boks have boasted in their better years, for example a Danie Rossouw, Willem Alberts or Juan Smith. He doesn’t have the level of physicality some would want from a Bok blindside. Having said all this, a lot depends on the game the coach wants to play. Kolisi is not a strong lineout option and, like Whiteley, he did not fully take his chance at Test level last year.
Jean-Luc du Preez
Pros: He has a massive physical presence at No 7 and uses his size to crash over the advantage line when nothing is on for the backs. He is very difficult to stop when he has the tryline in sight and regularly scores. An abrasive player, with a devastating hand-off, he has a strong all-round physical presence.
Cons: His handling has let him down at times, and he can end up on the wrong side of the penalty count. He is not the quickest around the park, but that is no surprise given he is 113kg and 1.94m tall.
Pros: Tall and strong at 107kg, he has the physique you would associate with blindside flankers and Heyneke Meyer picked him in that role after just seven Super Rugby games. He is excellent in the lineout and an explosive ball-carrier. He has picked up his work-rate this season and has been one of the Cheetahs’ stand-out players.
Cons: There has been no obvious weakness in his game this season, besides playing in a losing team! He is in the form of his life, and is a strong contender for the No 7 jersey.
Pros: Another overseas player that Coetzee picked at the start of 2016, Flo played most of the Tests in 2016. He is an out-and-out opensider, and at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, had the second highest total of turnovers (13) in the tournament (David Pocock made the most – 17). Also at the World Cup, Louw and Lood de Jager tied for most tackles made (77). He is powerfully built and a strong ball-carrier. His pedigree and ability is unquestioned.
Cons: Louw played in most of the 2016 Tests without ever capturing his best form. He turns 32 in June, and there is the question of whether he is the future.
Pros: He is arguably the form loose forward in South Africa, if not the entire competition. Before this weekend’s round of games, in nine matches Kriel had made 78 carries, covered 376m with ball-in-hand, made seven clean breaks, made 47 passes and three try assists, and offloaded eight times. He had beaten 21 defenders and scored four tries. On defence, he had made 66 tackles with a 91 percent success rate and missed just six tackles.
Cons: It is difficult to pinpoint a weakness in his game right now. There was a yellow card for making contact with the face of Robert du Preez with his elbow, but a judicial hearing cleared him of intentional wrongdoing. Maybe he needs a new haircut?!
The Springbok loose trio
So, there we have seven of the leading contenders for the loose trio, but the list could have been longer. Chris Cloete of the Kings would be many a fan’s openside flank because of his consistently good performances in a struggling team. He is a great ball-stealer, but his shortness counts against him and he is not an effective ball-carrier. Nizaam Carr and Sikhumbuzo Notshe are others that are in the frame.
Perhaps the biggest question is who to pick at seven. If you want a fearsome pack that is going to dominate the inevitable collisions and generate clean possession, then a trio of Vermeulen, Du Preez and Kriel would fit the bill. There is a heck of a lot of physicality in that trio.
If you want a loose trio with more mobility, then Kolisi needs to be there. He would also do a good job as captain. Kolisi is versatile and can play all three positions, and some would say that makes him an ideal No 20...
There is also a strong case of Whiteley leading the team from No 8, as he does so well for the Lions.
So, finally, how does seven go into three?
With neck firmly stuck out, my loose trio to start against France would be:
8 Vermeulen, 7 Kolisi, 6 Kriel!