Sport

TESTING TIMES

Rassie faces No 8 headache as Bok selections hinge on franchises’ URC progress

Rassie faces No 8 headache as Bok selections hinge on franchises’ URC progress
Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus has several loose forward options to consider for the new season. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has a reputation for thinking several steps ahead, which will be vital as he ponders tricky options for the Ireland series.

Springbok rugby fans may have mixed feelings after watching Leinster lose to Toulouse in the recent Investec Champions Cup final.

Jacques Nienaber is now at the helm of the Dublin-based club. It was sad in a sense to see the two-time World Cup winner falling short in his quest for a European title.

At the same time, Bok fans may be encouraged by how Leinster lost, or rather how the attack of the Irish side was contained for the better part of 100 minutes.

A robust and street-smart Toulouse outfit won the physical battle and forced a dangerous Leinster backline to operate well behind the gainline. Ultimately, the de facto Ireland national team, which is known for its attacking exploits, scored just one try.

Bok

Stormers No 8 Evan Roos might be the front-runner for the Springbok No 8 position in 2024. (Photo: Cole Cruickshank / Gallo Images)

Precursor to Bok-Ireland epic

The Boks, of course, have employed the same strategy in recent matches against Ireland. The results – a 19-16 defeat in Dublin in 2022 and a 13-8 loss in last year’s World Cup pool match in Paris – may suggest that the South African methodology was flawed. Yet the results might have been different had the Bok goal kickers been more accurate.

Toulouse made the most of their chances against Leinster, with goal kickers Blair Kinghorn and Thomas Ramos translating the French side’s physical dominance into points.

Having watched that contest play out, Bok coach Rassie Erasmus should be confident that his side has the game plan to ground Ireland in the two-Test series to be staged in South Africa next month.

The big question, of course, is whether Erasmus will have the players to execute this strategy over 160 gruelling minutes. South Africa’s depth has taken a hit in recent months.

As the Test season looms, Erasmus’s biggest headache is at No 8.

Veteran Duane Vermeulen retired at the end of the 2023 World Cup, and has since joined the Bok coaching staff.

Jasper Wiese, another physical player in the Vermeulen mould, has been suspended for a reckless challenge in a recent Premiership match, and will not be available for the first six Tests of the season.

Bok

Cameron Hanekom in action for the Bulls against the Ospreys in the URC. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

A complex problem

The situation has been complicated by the Boks’ unusual schedule. At this stage, Erasmus doesn’t know whether some of the alternatives to Wiese will be available for the start of the season.

The Boks are set to face Wales in a one-off Test at Twickenham on 22 June. The game will be staged outside the international ­window and, as per World Rugby’s Regulation 9, Europe-based players will be un­available for selection.

Top local players competing in the United Rugby Championship (URC) playoffs could also miss out, since the Test will be staged on the same day as the final.

Erasmus has a reputation for thinking several steps ahead and considering all possible outcomes before making a big call. And yet, much like the rest of us, he may have to wait and see how the playoffs unfold before moving forward with a decision at No 8.

The alternative is to pick a No 8 from the squad who is available at present, and has been part of the recent alignment camp in Cape Town. He may well be tempted to draw on the pool of veterans who have been playing club rugby in Japan.

Left-field selections

Pieter-Steph du Toit and Kwagga Smith play No 8 for their clubs in the Far East, but would they offer the same value as Vermeulen or Wiese in a Test setting?

Du Toit remains un­tested in that position at the highest level.

When Smith started at No 8 against the British and Irish Lions in 2021, he was successfully targeted by the opposition in the back field via a series of high-hanging kicks.

In any case, the Bok coaches may be reluctant to move Du Toit and Smith away from the side of the scrum, given how both flankers excelled in their roles at the recent World Cup in France.

So, who’s next on the depth chart?

Evan Roos has slotted in at No 8 in recent years when Vermeulen and Wiese have been unavailable. His performance against England at Twickenham in 2022 went a long way towards busting the myth that he lacks the physicality to be a bona fide Test animal.

Bulls loose forwards Elrigh Louw, Cameron Hanekom and Mpilo Gumede are also on the national radar, having attended recent training camps.

If the Stormers and Bulls reach the latter stages of the URC, Roos and the aforementioned Bulls trio will not be available for the one-off against Wales.

As a result, Erasmus may have to get creative, exploring the option of Du Toit or Smith at No 8, or even the uncapped Phepsi Buthelezi, who made a statement for the Sharks in their big win over Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final.

It wouldn’t be the first time a national coach has made an unconventional call at No 8. Kitch Christie moved Mark Andrews from lock to No 8 for the 1995 World Cup semifinal and final, and Jake White asked lock-cum-flanker Danie Rossouw to play there at the 2007 global tournament.

Bok

The Sharks’ Phepsi Buthelezi charges against Zebre Parma in a URC match on 10 November 2023. (Photo: Roberto Bregani / Gallo Images)

Building towards Ireland

At this stage, the Bulls are better placed than the Stormers to advance to the URC final. If the Stormers fall by the wayside in the next couple of weeks, and players such as Roos are released to the Boks, the coaches may well set the Stormers No 8 on a path to start against Wales as well as Ireland.

A best-case scenario (for the Boks) will see the Bulls and Stormers exiting the playoffs at the quarterfinal stage, and all the relevant players reporting for Bok duty well before the Wales Test.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Transformation is not only viewed through a narrow Springbok team lens

This seems unlikely, though, given that the Bulls, who have been virtually invincible at Loftus Versfeld in recent seasons, will host a quarterfinal.

If the Bulls were to bow out, it would make for an intriguing build-up to the Test season. The hard-hitting, tackle-busting talents of Louw and Hanekom would certainly amplify the Boks’ physical approach.

It’s crazy that South Africa find themselves in a position where Tests clash with club finals and player access is restricted.

National teams around the world face similar challenges, and this is unlikely to change until there is a global season and ultimately a clear division between the international and club schedules.

For now, all we and the Bok coaches can do is wait to see how the URC will play out, and how these results will influence the selections for the first part of the Test season. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Hinton says:

    There are plenty of good No 8s playing for SA franchises, the place is littered with them. Francke Horn, for example. Many of these guys are as robust but a lot more intelligent than the guys whose names you’re sticking with. Besides, if it really came to the crunch, Malcolm Marx could play in that position. Of course, that would leave us with only three loose forwards on the field, instead of four when he plays hooker.

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