Problems mount for Boks with Am and Pollard ruled out of Rugby Champs
Injuries have changed the complexion of the Springbok team for the remainder of the Rugby Championships.
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber has immediate problems relating to his side’s slump in form, but he will also have to peer over the horizon to future concerns.
Experienced flyhalf Handre Pollard and centre Lukhanyo Am have been ruled out of the remainder of the Rugby Championships. The pair sustained knee injuries during last week’s 25-17 defeat against the Wallabies in Adelaide.
Initially ruled out of this Saturday’s return clash in Sydney, the news on Wednesday was not good. Both players will need longer to recover from knee injuries and have been sent back to their clubs to continue rehabilitation.
That means they will not feature in matches against Argentina in Buenos Aires on 17 September and in Durban on 24 September. It’s a significant blow, especially if the Boks are unable to turn the tables on the Wallabies this weekend.
Am in particular, has been in spectacular form throughout the season, starting with his performances for the Sharks in the United Rugby Championship (URC). He took that form into the international season and built on it with some exceptional displays.
Am’s cameo on the right wing against the All Blacks at Ellis Park three weeks ago was sensational. He made four linebreaks in one game and was a constant threat in an ultimately losing cause as the Boks lost 35-23.
Nienaber said no replacements would be called up at this stage as they have sufficient cover in the squad. However, if the need arises, they will call on reinforcements.
“It’s always unfortunate to lose players in a squad, but this opens the door for other players to step in and showcase what they can do in those positions,” said Nienaber.
“We will now have 32 players in camp and with Elton (Jantjies) expected to recover for the matches against Argentina and players such as André (Esterhuizen) and Jesse (Kriel) and Frans (Steyn) all being capable centres, we are well covered.
“Our plan from the outset of the season was to give most of the players in our expanded squad game time as we build towards the Rugby World Cup, and this involved rotating a few players, so we’ll use this opportunity to build our depth.”
With Jantjies also nursing a hand injury, Damian Willemse will start a Test at flyhalf for the first time in his career with Frans Steyn providing cover from the bench.
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Willemse was a Junior Bok flyhalf but has played little rugby in the position at senior level while Am is replaced by the experienced Jesse Kriel for Saturday’s clash.
“Those are two of our leaders, two great players with experience who are great at what they do,” tighthead prop Trevor Nyakane told the media on Wednesday.
“In the Springbok squad, we thrive on helping each other and making everyone better. The people who are going to be taking those roles are just as good players and leaders.
“It is sad to have lost Handre and Lukhanyo, but Jesse and the guys come with just as much experience. It is a blow, but we have capable guys who are coming in and we trust them. We know that they are capable of doing the same job.”
Kriel, who started on the right wing against the All Blacks at Ellis Park before suffering a concussion in the fourth minute, says he is confident he can perform to Am’s level. He will form a midfield pairing with Damian de Allende for the 16th time in Tests.
“Lukhanyo set a great standard,” Kriel said. “He has been playing amazing rugby. However, I don’t feel any pressure.
“I know my role and responsibility in my position. I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’m very excited to reunite with Damian De Allende. Regardless of who plays in the midfield, all the guys that cover the midfield play well together.”
Nyakane backs hooker Fourie
Veteran prop Nyakane also came out to bat for this weekend’s reserve hooker Deon Fourie. The 35-year-old, who made his Test debut against Wales in July as a flank, is the back-up to Malcolm Marx in Sydney.
Although Fourie has played hooker in the past, he has not fulfilled the role regularly for more than five years. But Nyakane revealed that Fourie’s time in the squad was as a hooker and not a loose forward.
“We’ve only worked with him as a hooker on the training field but Deon is a very experienced player, he’s played in that position before,” Nyakane said.
“I watched him at school level and he was a hooker and it was a surprise to me when he started playing on the flank when we got to provincial level.
“He is in sync, he knows what we are trying to achieve as a pack and has fitted in perfectly. Things are shaping up to be great. I know he will tackle the challenge head-on.”
Nienaber also backed the decision in the absence of the injured Bongi Mbonambi and the tepid form of Joseph Dweba, which forced the change.
“Deon is a player that we are maybe looking ahead to see if he can make the World Cup in France next year,” said the Springbok coach.
“We think he can play a similar role as a utility forward like Schalk Brits did at the previous World Cup. Before the Test against the All Blacks in Nelspruit, with Bongi Mbonambi’s injury, Deon had been training in both those roles. He had been dividing his time 50-50 on being a hooker and being a loosie.
“Since Bongi’s injury, however, he has been concentrating 100% on being a hooker. He is someone who we trust.” DM