JON CARDINELLI writes the past two Tests have shown why South Africa needs a loose forward all-rounder like Francois Louw in the starting mix.
What do Louw, Richie McCaw and David Pocock all have in common? The answer is: Not one thing, but many.
They may differ in terms of the level of competency across the various facets of forward play, but the common denominator is that all three men are not out-and-out specialists. They’re not limited to a ball-stealing or ball-slowing role at the breakdown.
Forget the tag of fetcher, it’s a label that’s far too simplified. A modern-day openside must possess the necessary size and skill to be a good lineout option, ball-carrier, and momentum-stalling defender. Above and beyond that, he should have the ability to manipulate the flow of the game through his exploits at the breakdown.
Louw meets Heyneke Meyer’s loose forward criteria in that he is a ‘momentum gatherer as well as a momentum-stopper’. Meyer spoke of these criteria during the England series, but where the Bok coach got it wrong was in his back-row selections for those three Tests and much of the Rugby Championship.
Between Marcell Coetzee, Willem Alberts, Jacques Potgieter and Pierre Spies, there was not one player capable of playing that fetcher’s role, and thus there was no balance in the Boks’ approach. The absence of such a specialised skill was later exposed in games against Argentina and Australia.
Having a player like Louw in the starting line-up gives the Boks more options. He has the ability to play to the ball, and also meets Meyer’s criteria of what’s required of a Test loose forward. This was clear in last week’s Test in Dunedin, where Louw carried and defended powerfully, but also added that X-factor element at the breakdown.
Louw has long been considered an excellent fetcher, his performance in the 2010 Super 14 leading to his first Test cap. As the laws have changed and the responsibilities of an openside have changed, Louw has been forced to improve his game in other aspects of forward play. Louw can offer more than an out-and-out breakdown specialist like Heinrich Brüssow as a ball-carrier, physical defender, and lineout option.
In short, he’s the kind of player you need if you hope to enjoy sustained success against the All Blacks and Wallabies.
It took a string of loose-forward injuries for Louw to receive this opportunity, as Meyer has been reluctant to field players who are competing in overseas competitions. However, it has become increasingly evident over the past two years that there is no South African openside based locally or abroad that is in the same hybrid category.
The All Blacks have McCaw and the Wallabies have Pocock. Coaches build game plans around these players. It is something for Meyer to consider as he reassesses his playing strategy ahead of the home leg of the Rugby Championship, and the end-of-year tour.
It was unfair to expect great Test performances from Louw in Perth and Dunedin considering the last time he was involved was at the 2011 World Cup. And yet, the 27-year-old delivered when he started against the All Blacks. With more time to settle, with Meyer’s backing and assurance that he is more than just a stop-gap measure, Louw could become an important and game-shaping member of the Bok side.
I’m not suggesting that Meyer should completely dispense with promising youngsters like Coetzee. The 21-year-old flanker has impressed as an individual this season but that Bok back row has lacked balance whenever he has started.
There may come a time when Coetzee is ready to play a hybrid role and when he has fully developed the skill-set to do so, but at this point Louw is the complete package and must be backed.