Bok team: There ARE still some gaps

Duane Vermeulen (Getty)
Duane Vermeulen (Getty)

Cape Town – In the magical afterglow of a rare Springbok victory in New Zealand, perspective can get just a little mislaid in the post.

Why not, too? South Africans are entitled to let their hair down a bit and simply revel in the “here and now” … as so clearly happened following spine-tingling events in Wellington on Saturday.

The 36-34 result was a momentous one and, when all is said and done, the marvellously defiant - though sprightly and clinical on their occasional attacking forays, too - Boks did deserve this scalp by the proverbial whisker.

Yet considering the vast lop-sidedness of the match stats, especially in terms of All Blacks possession and territorial mastery, a great many of the more temperate judges in our country will also know that a repeat of such circumstances would almost certainly see the world champions come out on top nine times out of ten.

Or even 19 out of 20?

We do need to remember that the Boks didn’t actually dominate this Test match in manufacturing the triumph … not by a long shot.

If they’d hypothetically played again on Sunday, with exactly the same starting line-ups and substitutes, I know where I’d have very firmly placed my money, and regrettably it wouldn’t have been on Siya Kolisi’s no doubt universally spent troops from a physical point of view.

The New Zealanders (loose and sloppy at times, arguably to the borders of blasé arrogance) so clearly ended the “Cake Tin” clash with immeasurably greater levels of fuel left in their tanks. Revenge might well have been swift and merciless - and that remains a far from unlikely scenario at Loftus on October 6, come to think of it.

Victorious head coach Rassie Erasmus was reportedly under no illusions about the All Blacks’ ongoing superior general status, despite the shock score-line, at Saturday’s after-match press conference. (My only observation is that maybe he laid it on just a little thicker than was justified, even if he was somehow being strategic considering bigger pictures ahead.)

But the fact remains that the quite strongly youth-themed Boks, about whom we can nevertheless feel so much better in developmental terms now, almost undoubtedly will need considerably better field-position traction, plus more “time on the ball”, in upcoming bilateral encounters – including in a pool crunch at the World Cup next year – and against other strong foes if they are to redevelop a consistently victorious habit.

Grimly defending your own quarter as doggedly and repeatedly as the Boks did on Saturday is just not sustainable week in and week out: the educated, diligent Erasmus is highly unlikely to overlook that in his ongoing planning.

That will probably also mean, even if this may sound an unpopular theory to some at this immediate point, the Boks shoring up (or read more bluntly: improving) certain positions in their starting XV.

On the plus side, they are building some beautiful depth in certain areas, and most notably in a pack context.

The front row as a whole is already a competitive area, with a mighty scrap between Steven Kitshoff and Tendai Mtawarira for rights to premier loosehead prop mantle; Kitshoff is deservedly the man in possession now but I suspect there will still be a fair bit of rotation between them as starters, and that can’t be bad at all.

Tighthead, where Frans Malherbe is determinedly cementing his berth and Wilco Louw seemingly rejuvenated as well, is also not exactly a barren area: there’s those large specimens Thomas du Toit, Trevor Nyakane and (soon) Coenie Oosthuizen in the picture and why would you not wish to contemplate the credentials of Saracens’ Vincent Koch, either?

Meanwhile lock resources will be especially bulging in the next few weeks - if they aren’t already - when Lood de Jager returns to fitness to join the Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman-staffed party.

For all his meteoric rise and rise as a blindside flank, the tireless Wellington star Pieter-Steph du Toit also still stays very much in the picture, you’d think, for the second row; he has genuinely become a modern Danie Rossouw for enormous usefulness in versatility terms and a “must pick” for the XV at present, regardless of specific area of responsibility.

With him making such strides as a No 7, the temptation may be huge for Erasmus to increase the tonnage of the loose-forward arsenal further when Duane Vermeulen - enormous in the England series win - becomes available again.

As superb (a welcome development) as Warren Whiteley was at No 8 on Saturday, a fit Vermeulen still deserves to be branded top choice in that jersey and exactly the kind of grunt-laden additional forward the Boks will need if they are to spend more generous periods of major games, as they need to, on the front foot.

Ulster dynamo Marcell Coetzee (an option at all of six, seven and eight) could also soon enough be hammering the door down anew for squad selection, especially as he gets regular exposure on SA television screens through the PRO14.

Behind the scrum, admittedly the picture is a bit more blurry for the Boks.

There is still the vexing matter of next cab off rank to the still flawed, but amazingly indefatigable Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf and, with several locally-based No 9s getting little exposure from the coach so far, I do just wonder whether 10-cap Cobus Reinach of Northampton might wriggle back into contention well ahead of RWC 2019 in Japan.

Issues at flyhalf suddenly looked a lot less acute on Saturday when Handre Pollard, up front, and then Elton Jantjies off the bench for 32 minutes both excelled … including, educatively, together, once Pollard shifted very seamlessly indeed to inside centre.

That means Pollard might begin pushing Damian de Allende (albeit also an individual back on the up) hard for the No 12 rights, while Montpellier’s Jan Serfontein, victim of a lengthy side-lining recently, is still only 25 and could press for either midfield berth - the outside channel is still fairly up for grabs.

Young Aphiwe Dyantyi’s elusive exploits as an attacking force - evident again through a brace of tries in the Cake Tin -- only indicate just how fast now the Boks are regrouping, under Erasmus’s charge, in back-three terms, a broad area where predecessor Allister Coetzee frankly floundered.

Dyantyi still has some largely alignment-related rough edges defensively, but he lacks nothing in heart and effort and those are qualities that should help him progressively eliminate those snags as his Test career gradually swells.

Once S’bu Nkosi is ready to rejoin the wing queue and, similarly, Warrick Gelant returns to action to keep Willie le Roux on his toes at fullback, the Boks will be in a position to just start believing they can sport roughly a party of 30  – as opposed to just a XV or match-day 23 – capable of being hugely bothersome to New Zealand on a more regular basis again …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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England 92/4 (28 ov)
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