Battling for balance

The bench selection for the second Test suggests the Springboks will battle to maintain their physical ascendancy in the latter stages.

The Boks were dominant up front last week and halfbacks Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar controlled the game superbly in the first half despite ramblings of Peter de Villiers to the contrary. De Villiers hoped fresh legs would up the tempo in the second half, but the players taking the field only served to disrupt the team dynamic.

The make-up of the match 22 for the second Test suggests the Bok management haven’t learned from their mistakes. They’ve gone with five forwards and two backs on the bench, which is understandable given the physical inclination of the Lions, but the reserve forwards they’ve selected don’t justify the exclusion of a specialist scrumhalf on the wood.

Du Preez is the Bok pivot, but is not immune to injury. Pienaar can play scrumhalf, but if he’s controlling the game from flyhalf as he did last week, why would you want to move him, even if it is to cover the injured Du Preez, to a different position? Why not have a scrumhalf in reserve – not Ricky Januarie mind you – who can come on and continue to provide solid service from the base to a dominating flyhalf? What the management have done by naming Pienaar as Du Preez’s official back-up is unnecessary.

They may have had a point if their five reserve forwards could maintain any kind of dominance in the second half. Breaking it down player by player, it’s hard to see Chiliboy Ralepelle lifting the tempo if Bismarck du Plessis were to cry off injured. He’s a scrummaging hooker rather than a fourth loosie, and he’s shown that in his limited involvement for the Bulls in the Super 14.

But that is only a secondary issue when you consider the selections of players 18 (Andries Bekker), 19 (Danie Rossouw) and 20 (Heinrich Brussouw). The Boks have explained Brussow’s selection and he could indeed prove valuable in the final quarter with his fetching ability, an ability that could lead to turnovers, counter-attacking opportunities and tries. But you don’t need both Bekker and Rossouw on the bench when Rossouw is well capable of playing the utility role.

Bekker took the ball well in the lineout but in a partnership with Victor Matfield at scrum-time, the Boks found themselves with two No 5s on the field. The scrum suffered without Bakkies Botha’s bullk behind tighthead John Smit, and the breakdown suffered without that brutish clearing of defenders. Bekker’s a very talented player who will fill the void when Matfield retires, but he’ll never be a No 4 lock. Since Matfield is also an 80-minute player at the moment due to his talent and leadership value, why include Bekker on the bench?

Rossouw has played lock, blindside and No 8 for the Boks with some success. Brussow can only play openside, meaning the Boks need cover for Juan Smith and Pierre Spies. Rossouw can also cover Botha when he comes off in the second half. He’s a skilled jumper and he can also dish out the necessary clout when required.

The Boks’ first half-showing at King’s Park wasn’t perfect, but it was smart. They had begun to dismantle the Lions, and that rolling maul early in the second half underlined their dominance.

The backline didn’t receive many opportunities in the first half as Pienaar kicked for territory and the forwards kept it close. As shown in the big victories over Australia and England last year, the forwards need to maintain their effort for the backs to run riot. It’s something the Boks failed to do last Saturday, and something they should look to correct at Loftus.

Unfortunately, with their bench lacking balance, the Boks will be hard pressed to do so. The Lions are poor but in striving to better their own game, the Boks need to get this balance right. They will win this weekend and the weekend thereafter, but they may still fail to reach their potential.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg