Opinion: Brutal back-row choice looms for Springbok coach

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

The scrap for Springbok squad positions will come to a head in the coming weeks, with several outstanding loose forwards set to miss the cut for the series against Wales, writes Jon Cardinelli.

Last Sunday, Bok coach Jacques Nienaber named a 17-man training squad for the series against Wales. This group comprised of established Bok players who have completed their club duties in Japan, as well as players of national interest from the Sharks – who were knocked out of the United Rugby Championship by the Bulls in the recent quarter-final.

More players will be phased into the camp as they become available over the next few weeks. Players of national interest from the Bulls and Stormers will join the Boks once their respective URC campaigns have concluded. The Boks based at clubs in England, Ireland and France will link up with the team as soon as the European domestic leagues draw to a close.

Nienaber is expected to name an extended squad of 30 to 40 players ahead of the first series of the 2022 Test season. The group will prepare for the home games against Wales as well as for the subsequent Rugby Championship Tests.

If all goes to plan, Nienaber will field a more experimental side in the third Test against Wales, and possibly in the home fixture against Argentina in September.

Spoiled for choice

That said, Nienaber may be forced to omit a clutch of form players and possibly one or two veterans. As things stand, the Boks are spoiled for choice in the loose forward department, with the incumbent back-row supplemented by a host of World Cup-winners and Lions slayers.

What’s more, there are several local players that are banging – loudly and insistently – on the Bok door.

Make no mistake, it’s a good headache for a coach to have. And yet, when one considers the loose forward group in its entirety, and who might miss out, one doesn’t envy the national selectors ahead of the final squad announcement.

Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen will begin the 2022 season as the incumbent back-row, and Nienaber has good reason to back all three in the lead-up to next year’s World Cup.

Du Toit has recovered from a serious injury setback, and is desperate for game time after missing all but three of the Boks’ Tests in 2021.

Kolisi was the Boks’ standout player last season, and his lacklustre performances – notably for a lacklustre Sharks side – should not be held against him ahead of the new season.

Vermeulen has been immense for Irish side Ulster over the past few months. The number eight has been the Boks’ defensive captain for the better part of a decade, and should continue to play this role for the next two seasons.

The Bok coaches won’t hesitate to select those three players when they are fit and available. Settling on alternatives, however, may prove more challenging.

Nienaber has confirmed that he will pick five specialist loose forwards in his 2023 World Cup squad. With that in mind, it follows that – providing Kolisi, Du Toit and Vermeulen remain fit – only two spots are up for grabs.

Francois Louw and Kwagga Smith were part of the contingent that travelled to the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Louw has since retired, while Smith has remained part of the group.

Smith produced several influential performances across the 2021 season, and is likely to be retained for now.

Jasper Wiese, Marco van Staden and Dan du Preez – who all represent English clubs – played supporting roles for the Boks last year. It will be interesting to see whether these players are retained, or whether they make way for local players vying for an opportunity.

Bulls hardman Elrigh Louw has already joined the Boks for an alignment camp this season. Evan Roos of the Stormers and Marcell Coetzee of the Bulls, however, have been overlooked in spite of their gargantuan showings.

Social media debates have raged over the past few weeks, with fans calling for Roos and Coetzee to be elevated to South Africa’s starting XV. The Bok coaches are unlikely to make such drastic changes, but there may be an argument for Louw, Roos or Coetzee moving ahead of Wiese, Van Staden, Du Preez and even Smith in the pecking order.

Can these fringe players cover all three loose forward positions from the bench, or in a World Cup squad context?

Coetzee has played all three positions for the Boks, and may have travelled to Japan in 2019 if not for an untimely ankle injury. Louw and Roos, of course, still have everything to prove on the Test stage.

The make-up of the forward group as a whole is also something to bear in mind.

Franco Mostert – who was used exclusively as a lock back in 2019 – has developed into a bona fide loose forward option.

When announcing the 17-man training group recently, SA Rugby confirmed that Mostert has been included as a “utility forward”. This indicates that Mostert will continue to offer the Boks options at lock and blindside flank. It’s possible that Mostert will travel to France next year as “the sixth loose forward” in the squad.

Nienaber and Erasmus will be determined to develop alternatives in the interim. Rynhardt Elstadt was listed as a utility forward for the Boks in 2019 and 2021, although he served primarily as a flank. Last year, Jean-Luc du Preez – who has played all of his Test rugby in the back-row – represented the South Africa A side at lock before he succumbed to injury.

Bulls second-row Ruan Nortje recently attended a Bok alignment camp. Perhaps the gifted youngster will serve as a utility forward at some stage over the course of the Test season.

I’ve listed 10 specialist loose forwards as well as four utility forwards who are on the national radar. There are many more star players at South Africa’s disposal, if you reflect on the performances of Phepsi Buthulezi (Sharks), Vincent Tshituka (Lions) and Juarno Augustus (Northampton Saints) over the past few months.

There’s going to be an outcry when the Bok squad is finalised in the next few weeks – due to the omissions rather than due to the inclusions.

Nienaber’s selections will reveal a great deal about what the Bok coaches are looking for in a loose forward ahead of the 2022 Test season, and in the lead-up to the all-important World Cup.

READ MORE: Chris Smith the hero as Bulls pip Sharks in Pretoria

The article Opinion: Brutal back-row choice looms for Springbok coach appeared first on Planetrugby.com.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting