Balance key in back row composition

RYAN VREDE writes that Pierre Spies and Juan Smith’s selection in the loose trio necessitates the inclusion of Deon Stegmann.

Spies, consistently good in the Super 14, failed to replicate that form at Test level in 2010. However, coach Peter de Villiers remained unfailingly loyal to him and is fully expected to name him as his starting No 8 for their tour opening Test against Ireland on Saturday.

Spies, in five Tests in the northern hemisphere, has never recovered from his first – a nightmare display against Ireland in 2006. The Heathrow international arrivals hall seems to sap his power, rendering him a relative passenger. That he arrived this time with a fractured confidence after an indifferent Test season doesn’t aid his cause.

Spies is at his most potent when part of the game plan is geared towards engineering attacking opportunities in space for him. Admittedly, part of his failings can be attributed to the team’s inability to do this consistently. But Spies must (and would have given the high standard he expects of himself) take the bulk of the responsibility for his relative attacking impotency.

Equally he needs to assert himself more defensively. It continues to a personal point of frustration that none of his coaches have adequately taught him good tackle technique because a player with his upper body strength has the potential to be deployed as a defensive weapon, dominating tackle situations and whereby creating opportunities for turnovers. At present he is no more an a bulky obstruction.

Smith’s value cannot be overstated and was in full evidence upon his return to the Springboks’ back row for the home leg of the Tri-Nations. He is a banker at the gain line and defends with brutality that makes you cringe. His performance in those facets of play will be decisive to how the Springboks fare on tour.

However, balance is key in the back row, and with Spies and Smith tasked with making metres and blunting Ireland at the collisions (as well as the secondary roles as lineout jumpers), it is essential that the Springboks start with a specialist openside flank. Stegmann has the qualities that complement the aforementioned duo.

Certainly there is the legitimate concern that Stegmann is not match fit, having missed the bulk of the Currie Cup through injury. However, injuries and the perplexing omission of Francois Louw (he would have been my pick to start at No 6) means Stegmann is the only choice.

It would be a grave tactical error to deploy any of the other options – Ryan Kankowski, Keegan Daniel or Willem Alberts – there. While all three are undoubtedly gifted, none are as skilled at slowing the recycle or stealing the ball as Stegmann is. A player of this ilk has been at the heart of most defensively sound sides, allowing the line to set by ensuring that the ball emerges from the ruck slowly. In addition, teams often profit from turnovers created by these men.

Stegmann won’t offer the Springboks an additional potential metre maker with ball in hand, but they have an enough of those for him not to be a liability in this regard. Neither is he going to reverse anyone in contact, but again, there are those equipped to do so.

He has allowed Spies to play a looser role at the Bulls, South Africa’s most successful franchise, who’ve consistently deployed a specialist openside flank in the last four years (Wikus van Heerden preceded Stegmann in the role). He would now provide the same opportunities for him with the Springboks, and given that the forecast is for clear skies over the revamped Lansdowne Road, Spies could be a factor.

Balance is essential when constructing the back row, and it is an area where the Springboks’ coaching staff have consistently failed this season, following the premature axing of Louw. They cannot make that mistake again. Stegmann’s time is now.

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*Check out my lighthearted take on the Springbok squad selection and their chances against Ireland on the Telegraph’s (UK) blog – http://my.telegraph.co.uk/rugby/ryanvrede/478/peter-de-villiers-must-pick-patrick-lambie-as-springboks-full-back-but-he-wont/