Chance for Bok rookies to rule the roost
UP TO THE TEST: The series against France is an exercise in damage control. But is it too late for coach Allister Coetzee?
ALLISTER Coetzee’s reign as Springbok coach has been as flaky as a croissant and the three-test series against France won’t necessarily solidify his position.
Guy Noves’s side, by Coetzee’s own admission, has been the most improved international team over the last year, but even if the Boks secure a series win, the damage done last year will continue to leave Coetzee on crumbly ground.
Coetzee operated sans a performance clause in his contract last year, but this year is different. The reputational damage the team, or let’s say the brand, has suffered bordered on the irreparable.
Coetzee’s tenure has been tenuous and the Tricolores didn’t have to bubble wrap a guillotine before they winged their way here.
Brendan Venter has been added to the coaching mix but whether he will sooth the ills that afflicted the team last year remains to be seen.
As far as the new defence coach’s range of influence is concerned, he is unlikely to confine himself to just one lane.
What is also clear is that Coetzee has had to turn to form players and, to further distance himself from last year’s horrors, he has installed a new captain in Warren Whiteley. On-field inspiration is a commodity that was in short supply last year and Coetzee this time at least has invested in a player who has helped set, and is revelling in, a winning culture.
Whiteley should have familiar faces around him in the first test.
Andries Coetzee seems to have the inside lane at fullback, with fellow Lion Courtnall Skosan the likely leftwing and Dillyn Leyds or Raymond Rhule on the other side.
Coetzee [the coach] has made a strong case for setting down established combinations.
“People always think of combinations as nine and 10, 12 and 13. It goes wider than that. Imagine Andries Coetzee catching a ball in his own territory and then he has players falling back in support, like flyhalf Elton Jantjies, No 8 Warren Whiteley, scrumhalf Ross Cronjé and wing Courtnall Skosan. These are players who know what to do in that situation.”
That’s reassuring, for the back three can expect an aerial assault. They will lack experience and they are not gifted the physique of their French counterparts. With high ball contesters like Krugersdorp-born fullback Scott Spedding and wing Virimi Vakatawa, the tourists will be keen to make inroads under the high ball.
The Bok coach could of course remedy that by deploying the burly and experienced Frans Steyn at fullback, but he has been listed as flyhalf/centre.
Steyn could also prove useful with his Big Bertha right foot at insidecentre to complement Elton Jantjies’ distinct left-foot leanings at flyhalf.
Ross Cronjé is likely to start at scrumhalf, giving the team the crucial Lions’ eight- nine-10 axis.
Beast Mtawarira’s best rugby may be behind him, but his experience is much needed next to Malcom Marx and Frans Malherbe, although the latter is yet to fully repay the faith the last two Bok coaches have displayed in him.
Stormers lock duo Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth are yet to fully assert themselves this season, but they will probably start alongside teammate Siya Kolisi.
Duane Vermeulen, because of his commitments in the Top 14 final this weekend, is unlikely to be in the starting team.
Whiteley’s credentials as captain and No 8 will be put to the blowtorch from the outset.
Even if modern-day eighthmen rarely operate in the other’s orbit, the Tricolores’ Louis Picamoles creates the impression he’s the only No 8 on the field. He embodies the Gallic rooster’s chest-first swagger which is slowly but surely returning under Noves.
Forwards coach and former hooker Yannick Bru described 2015 as a nightmare from which the team simply had to emerge.
“After the disappointment of 2015 we decided to play positive rugby. We try and keep the ball and create space. We are on the way.”
There was also the realisation that they needed to restore the joie de
vivre, which was purged from their game by a succession of overly pragmatic coaches.
“We had to give to the fans the feeling that we deserve to be supported by them,” noted Bru. “That was the main thing we achieved. The support of the fans is really good at the moment.
“We, however, remain behind the best teams in the rankings. We know we have to improve. The ratio between creating opportunity and scoring points is too weak at the moment.”
France have some composed flyhalves to choose from. Camille Lopez was at the heart of Clermont’s surge to the European Champions Cup and Top 14 finals, while Jules Plisson has kept Morne Steyn out of the Stade Francais No 10 jersey.
They have game-breakers like centre Gael Fickou, scrumhalf Baptiste Serin and barrel-chested Vakatawa, but they also possess grunt in the engine room.
Man mountain tighthead Uini Antonio weighs 155kg, but may not even make the starting lineup. Rabah Slamani is a more accomplished scrummager, Yoann Maestri is the grizzled, towering enforcer in the second row, while open-sider Kevin Gourdon has proved a revelation with Top 14 logtoppers La Rochelle.
Those playing in the Top 14 final can make a better case for a starting berth in the second test at Kings Park, which means Noves’s options will be limited for next week’s first test at Loftus.
Either way, France will want to leave Durban cock-a-hoop.
PICK AND GO: No 8 Louis Picamoles is just one of the obstacles in South Africa’s path
WAITING GAME: France coach Guy Noves can only pick his best starting team in the second test