South Africa’s silver season stumble

MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day, writes that South African player power isn’t looking too flash after the weekend’s Super Rugby humiliation.

The boast that South Africa enjoys greater playing talent than New Zealand and England isn’t looking as flash this morning.

The Kings provided an unexpected highlight in beating the Highlanders in Port Elizabeth but the manner in which the Cheetahs and the Sharks succumbed to Australasian opposition is disconcerting and the way in which the Stormers lost in Sydney was equally dispiriting.

The Bulls remain the only realistic South African Super Rugby championship contender, but a top two finish is a must if the Pretoria-based franchise is to be successful.

If the Bulls have to travel for a play-off they won’t win.

The South African concern extends beyond Super Rugby because the national squad players are either out of form, injured or certainly not en-masse in the top two or three in their positions in world rugby.

The second tier June international opposition won’t expose the limitations of the Boks but the Rugby Championship could make for unfulfilled weekends.

A month ago I was more optimistic than this morning. Duane Vermeulen’s injury setback is huge. There had been no official release to confirm the length of his injury-enforced absence from the game but the match television evidence suggests it could be for most of the year.

How awful for a player who had to wait so long for a national call-up and who delivered so positively to the team’s success when eventually honoured as the best No 8 in South Africa.

Vermeulen adds physicality to the position currently unmatched in South Africa. The Stormers offer decidedly less without Vermeulen. The Boks face a similar unappetizing prospect.

Selecting national squads is a weekly obsession in this country but after 13 rounds of Super Rugby and a season of Top 14, English Premiership and Heineken Cup there’s enough to ponder about the probability and possibilities for this season’s Boks.

National coach Heyneke Meyer has also already shown his hand with the identification of a Bok training squad, but the areas of vulnerability are looking decidedly ominous.

I’d select Willie le Roux at fullback for the Boks but if Gio Aplon can’t make Meyer’s squad, then there isn’t much hope for Le Roux. Both players have an attacking mindset that doesn’t translate to conservative national selections.

It’s more than unfortunate.

Zane Kirchner has been Meyer’s pick but he is injured and on his way to Ireland. In his absence no South African fullback has delivered consistently world-class performances.

Frans Steyn is injured, Pat Lambie is playing flyhalf and Joe Pietersen isn’t good enough to be a Test fullback.

Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen remain the only two world-class wingers at the moment and both are leaving for overseas.

I still believe Francois Hougaard is a better wing than scrumhalf but he, in an ideal Test match squad, would add value as a versatile substitute more than a starter.

The back three axis isn’t an imposing one.

Jean de Villiers picks himself at No 12. He is world class and Robert Ebersohn and Jan Serfontein certainly offer promise of a healthy midfield future, but Test candidates are limited in numbers.

I have always promoted the playing virtues of JJ Engelbrecht at outside centre but there are concerns about his ability to organize defence. I still think he offers the squad physical presence and pace, be it at 13 or on the wing.

Morne Steyn has easily been the stand out flyhalf, but he is also on his way to France. Lambie, as much as I want him to be successful at flyhalf, seems in a holding pattern. He hasn’t played with the authority and freedom of the youngster who inspired the Sharks to a Currie Cup final against Western Province a few seasons back.

Johan Goosen is injured and I am not convinced Demetri Catrakilis is ready for Test rugby. Elton Jantjies has also lost ground at the Stormers.

Jano Vermaak has been good at scrumhalf and Sharks No 9 Cobus Reinarch is injured. It’s not looking that good.

Loose-forward is the strongest position in terms of quality of player. South Africa will never struggle to find three excellent loose-forwards but it isn’t always as easy finding three whose skills complement each other.

Andries Bekker has been the best South African lock in Super Rugby but he isn’t available. Juandre Kruger is off to France, Flip van der Merwe has been good without ever being excellent and young Piet-Steph du Toit is a year off being very good as a Test No 5 lock option. Eben Etzebeth has only just returned from injury but within South Africa there isn’t a lot of cover at No 4.

Adriaan Strauss has been the form hooker, but again there is very little of similar pedigree.

The front row options are not overwhelming but neither are they that good anywhere else.

Bakkies Botha, Ruan Pienaar, Schalk Brits and possibly Danie Rossouw provide overseas options, as do a handful of front rankers.

South African rugby will never be in a bad state but it’s currently more silver season than golden generation.