Smith injury forces back-row rethink

JON CARDINELLI says news of Juan Smith’s injury is a massive blow to the Springboks’ World Cup title ambitions and that national selectors should start considering alternative loose-trio options.

The news broke on Saturday that Smith had torn his Achilles tendon in the match against the Bulls, and that he would need between six and nine months to recover. The medical update on Monday offered a glimmer of hope, as doctors said the injury wasn’t as bad as feared, and that he could be back by August.

The Springboks need Juan Smith. Commentators and scribes the world over recognise Bakkies Botha as the Boks’ enforcer, but in the Test playing fraternity there is a healthy respect for Smith as an aggressive and irrepressible force. His robust ball-carrying get the Boks over the advantage line, and his defence is felt long after the final whistle has blown.

What is perhaps not celebrated enough is his technical expertise. Turnovers may not be viewed as the blindside’s forte, and yet Smith has effected enough breakdown steals to be acknowledged by opposition coaches as a realistic breakdown threat. His performances in the lineout are well-documented, and it is here that the Boks may miss him the most.

While Botha and Matfield are quality options at the front and middle of the lineout, Smith has become a specialist at the back. It’s the hardest ball to win at Test level, but Smith has forged a reputation as secure ball-winner, and that has in turn benefited the Boks’ attack. Winning the ball at the tail allows for optimal attacking ball, and teams that succeed tend to trouble opposition defences.

It’s hoped that this skill set will be on show at the 2011 World Cup, but it’s highly unlikely that Smith will recover in time. Doctors say he’ll do well to be fit by August; a month before the start of the global tournament. And even if he fights his way back to fitness, he’ll lack the match sharpness required for a World Cup assault.

The Boks need Smith at the World Cup, but they need him at his best. He may well recover before the anticipated date, and he may well force his way into that 30-man squad by virtue of his previous showings. But in the meantime, the Bok selectors need to consider alternatives.

Schalk Burger, Smith and Pierre Spies comprised the Bok back row at the end of the 2010 Tri-Nations, and it’s widely believed that if available, this is the combination that will start at the World Cup. But subtract Smith from that mix, and it alters the dynamic. Picking a new blindside may force selectors to reconsider the roles and value of men like Burger and Spies.

Heinrich Brussow is coming back from injury, and should play his first Super Rugby match in a week’s time. Brussow has played together with Burger and Spies with some success (at the end of the 2009 Tri-Nations), and may be brought in at openside with Burger shifting to No 7. However, it still remains to be seen if Brussow can survive under the new laws that demand more of a No 6. Out-and-out fetchers need to evolve; they need to offer more than the ability to steal or slow ball.

Francois Louw is a player who fits the modern day mould, as he not only possesses fetching skills but the means to perform a role similar to that of Smith. While he may not be as abrasive, and let’s face it, not many are, he would be a useful option.

Peter de Villiers and company should also keep an eye on the Stormers’ back row as a combination. This loose trio was the best on offer in the 2010 Super 14, and it was a travesty that Duane Vermeulen didn’t receive a national call-up. As it stands, the Boks have very few good options at No 8.

The Sharks’ contingent will be screaming for the inclusion of one of their blindsides now that Smith is in doubt. Willem Alberts is a hard man to bring down while Jean Deysel is another that fits the abrasive description, but both are very limited in other departments.

There’s plenty to ponder between now and the end of the Super Rugby tournament, but De Villiers cannot sit back and assume that Smith will return. Replacing the irreplaceable is a tough ask, but it’s how De Villiers fills that blindside void or indeed reworks the back-row dynamic that may determine whether the Boks retain the world title or not.

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