Watching South Africans Jan Serfontein and Frans Steyn dazzle as Montpellier’s midfield pairing again asked if indeed the best South Africans will be playing for the Springboks this Saturday.
For me they aren’t – and there are several areas that could be improved on, specifically in the midfield, the back three and at No 8 with Toulon-based Duane Vermeulen’s presence.
Vermeulen would be my natural choice at No 8 and I’d have picked him the moment he was available. Ditto Steyn.
Vermeulen would add more gravitas to the Springboks pack, but Vermeulen or no Vermeulen Springbok supporters need not fear the set piece efficiency against any of Ireland, France, Italy or Wales but it’s the potency of the backs that will determine the success of the tour.
The talk for the last fortnight has been that Springboks coach Allister Coetzee will turn to Handre Pollard and Damien de Allende to add muscle, directness and impact to the South African attack.
The two last operated in tandem as a No 10/12 in 2015 at the World Cup, but since then Pollard has largely been absent because of injury and De Allende, because of injury and form, has very much been a fringe squad member.
De Allende’s started occasionally in 2016 but in 2017 he’s been more bench warmer than backline slayer.
The Springboks 2017 inside centre Jan Serfontein is unavailable for the November internationals because of French club commitments with Montpellier. Regular 2017 flyhalf Elton Jantjies is on tour, but with him steering the Springbok ship in 2017, the side has still managed just five wins from nine starts.
In Business Day Newspaper I wrote that the margins are frightfully small in professional sport because the five wins could, with a bit of good fortune, been eight wins. The reality is the figure stands at five and Coetzee’s Springbok coaching record reads nine wins from 21 starts.
I’ve written on several occasions that the Dublin showdown with Ireland shapes as the defining Test of the Springboks’s season. Ireland, in Dublin, has become one of the toughest fixtures on the international calendar.
Eddie Jones’s England were beaten in Dublin earlier in the year and the All Blacks, in their last two visits to Dublin, won 24-22 and 21-9 in two high quality match-ups.
It is essential for Coetzee and those players in which he has invested in 2017 that the Springboks triumph in Dublin. The big question mark is if there’s the class and form in the backs to overcome the Irish?
Pollard’s ability is not in question; it’s his lack of international game time in the last two years, and he simply has played very little rugby at any level.
De Allende’s assessment is not quite as simple. Is he still good enough? And if he is deemed the best No 12 option, then will the Springboks be good enough?
This is a tour for Pollard and De Allende to reestablish their claims to starting roles and to revive 2015. Pollard, whatever happens on the tour, will still have an international future but this could be the 27-Test De Allende’s make or break tour.
The midfield has been a minefield for the Springboks in the last five seasons, spanning 57 Tests. In this time 14 centre combinations have been used, with the retired Springbok captain Jean de Villiers and the out of favour JJ Engelbrecht ‘s nine-Test combination the most prolific.
De Allende and Jesse Kriel have played together eight times, as have Kriel (outside centre) and Serfontein (inside centre).
De Allende, even though many of those 27 Tests have come as a substitute, is the most experienced Test back on tour.
The uncapped Lukhanyo Am has been the form South African midfielder in 2017 but he is viewed more as an outside centre. Am’s impact in linebreaks and tackles broken is nearly twice that of De Allende’s, and his tackling efficiency is also 10 percent better than De Allende’s.
Statistics all favour Am but the opinion of Coetzee is very much weighted towards De Allende.
Coetzee’s loyalty to players is well documented but continued failure from these players means it translates to misguided loyalty.
Coetzee is also unlikely to tamper with his starting pack after the fabulous and courageous display against the All Blacks in Cape Town.
The Irish in Dublin are a different challenge than the All Blacks, but no less demanding.
The Springboks in Cape Town were passionate and brave. They were physical and powerful. They won back respect after the 57-0 humiliation against the same All Blacks in Albany, New Zealand.
Now that they have the respect of the world again, they need a winning result.
I’m not convinced they’re going to get that winning result in Dublin. I sincerely hope I am wrong.
Western Province’s Nizaam Carr and Lions loose-forward Kwagga Smith are just two examples of loose-forwards that could have added to the potency of the Springboks.
Carr offers versatility and is arguably the most balanced No 8 in the country. Smith, as was evident in his man of the match display for the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Twickenham, has a game-breaking explosiveness.
The fact that these two can’t make the Springboks touring squad says more about the selectors than it does the quality of those players on tour. The same can be argued for world class internationals Vermeulen and (Frans) Steyn.