RYAN VREDE writes that the form of South Africa’s leading No 8s is a cause for deep concern in a World Cup year.
Incumbent Springbok eighthman Pierre Spies has inspired the least confidence. It would provide a level of comfort if his struggles were acute. However, they are chronic and stem back to the start of the Test season in 2010. In fact, if you inspect his Test form more closely, it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that he hasn’t played well since the Tri-Nations in 2009.
His nadir came against the Crusaders on Saturday. Rarely have I seen an established international perform so poorly in Super Rugby.
He didn’t feature as an attacking force, as indeed he hasn’t all season. I feel for Spies in this regard, as he cannot be held solely responsible for his utter impotence.
It is the duty of the coaching staff to formulate a game plan that seeks to extract maximum value from their key players. For Spies to have a telling influence on a match he has to be deployed against a defensive line depleted through patient and effective phase play. At present the Bulls can’t string together a passage of play long enough to accomplish this because of their failure to consistently boss the gainline. Consequently Spies is regularly gang-tackled, which seriously compromises his ability to generate attacking momentum.
But that alone cannot be offered as a mitigating factor for his poor form. His ball protection in contact was diabolical in Timaru. He appears to suffer from the flawed belief that he can simply ram through defenders without treasuring the ball. This is of course endemic to South African forwards, but recently Spies has been among the worst offenders.
However, his defence worries most. I’ve written numerous times that with his physical constitution he should be a defensive weapon. Instead he has been a popgun – possessing the appearance of the real thing but exposed as a fraud when required to fire. His inability to halt Israel Dagg’s surge for the tryline on Saturday gives further credence to that assertion. Dagg is 15kg lighter and had to make roughly 8m. That is indefensible for an experienced Test player and one as physically superior as he is.
While Spies’ form is a focal point, his rivals have done little to advance their cause. The Sharks’ Ryan Kankowski continues to be anonymous when games are tight. He shares this shortcoming with Spies, and in a World Cup environment where pragmatism rules and therefore demands players with the capacity to mix it at close quarters, the fact that neither of the Springboks’ premier eights fit the bill is worrying.
Duane Vermeulen has this ability, but doesn’t possess Spies or Kankowski’s explosiveness or the latter’s offloading skill in the tackle. His attacking struggles are rooted in the Stormers’ tight five’s failure to create a platform that offers him the space and time he needs to be a force.
It must, however, also be acknowledged that he has exhibited little variation in his play – unfailingly looking to take tackles and set up rucks. This has made him easier to defend against, and he must add to his attacking arsenal.
Also, he has shown himself to be a liability at times because of his poor discipline. It has become obvious that teams are targeting him for special treatment, aware that he has a short fuse. He is a fine player, and arguably the best South African No 8 at present, but he has to harness his rage better if he hopes to build an irrefutable case for Springbok selection.
Where does that leave us? I have more faith in Kankowski improving exponentially in the coming months than I am willing to invest in Spies. The Sharks are a better side and their collective class will aid Kankowski’s cause to return to top form.
The Bulls are struggling and haven’t shown anything to suggest they will challenge the tournament’s elite teams. Spies will continue to suffer under their outdated and ineffective game plan. His form doesn’t warrant continued selection as a starter, and the Bulls could do worse than entrust Danie Rossouw with the role.
Coach Frans Ludeke has never been known for making bold selection choices when senior Springboks are struggling. Nothing suggests he will this time.
Similarly, barring serious injury Spies will be Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’ run-on pick at the World Cup. Rewarding mediocrity will be a sad feature of De Villiers’ legacy, and has the potential to be terminal to the Springboks’ title defence.