Johannesburg - Our obsession with which flyhalf Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus will or won’t play has blinded us to a bigger positional crisis at loose forward.
There was a time when being born a flanker in South Africa was a curse because of the long queue one had to wait in for recognition – just ask Ireland’s CJ Stander. Now, when Jean-Luc du Preez gets injured, or Duane Vermeulen becomes unavailable due to club commitments, Erasmus barely has a loose trio to put together.
The back row that played against the Wallabies yesterday featured captain Siya Kolisi at openside flank, Pieter-Steph du Toit at blindside flank and Warren Whiteley at No 8. The former two were basically playing out of position, with Kolisi on the wrong side of the scrum and Du Toit – a lock – deputising at blindside.
That makeshift loose trio had replaced one that had Francois Louw, who’s starting to look a little long in the tooth, at openside, and Kolisi and Whiteley at flank and eighthman, respectively. Looked at from a distance, putting a back row together is starting to resemble an exercise in shifting the decks until Du Preez and Vermeulen return.
Quite when those previously well-stocked resources got so depleted is a mystery. But, as things stand, our best fetcher is hooker Malcolm Marx, our best No 8 (Vermeulen) is actually a blindside flank and we haven’t had a classical eighthman since Bob Skinstad’s brief flirtation with greatness before his crippling knee injury.
Contrast that with the mean bastards who constantly fell off the production line, including Ruben Kruger, André Venter, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Danie Rossouw. For some reason, the country has stopped producing big, fast men with nothing but bad intentions.
Perhaps I should explain the individual roles of the loose trio as they were once explained to me (oddly enough, by Erasmus) years ago.
The openside – squat and close to the ground – plays to the ball, quickening his own team’s ball and slowing down the opposition’s; the blindside, basically a smallish lock with athleticism and grunt, stops the opponents’ momentum and generates his team’s; while the No 8 is the link between the forwards and the backs.
Thanks to modern referees cracking down on defending teams at the rucks, the traditional fetcher – who targeted rucks for a living like Heinrich Brüssow – has been all but written out of the game in favour of the so-called hybrid flankers who are neither out-and-out blindside flankers nor opensides.
This is why any South African fan would be hard-pressed to name the country’s best fetcher. Of those who play domestically, the answer is probably Roelof Smit, but because he’s a strict ruck chaser, he’s been replaced by Marco van Staden.
Nicknamed Eskom because, when he hits you in the tackle, he knocks your lights out, the recently capped Van Staden has more going for him because he can also carry and can pass for an option at line-outs.
But South Africa’s biggest issue lies at blindside flank, where literally the only viable options are Du Preez and the injured Cyle Brink. The former is a man child with a passing resemblance to Dolph Lundgren and nothing but bad intentions, while Brink was showing promise of the blunt object variety when injury struck.
With so many locks in the system at the moment, (Du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, RG Snyman and Lood de Jager), Erasmus and co may have to resort to converting the more athletic of the up and coming locks into blindside flanks – there’s nothing worse than watching a team whose blindside flanker can’t buy go-forward.
The talent at No 8 may not be that encouraging at the moment, but, in Juarno Augustus and Hacjivah Dayimani, that problem should be solved within a couple of years. The 20-year-olds bring markedly different gifts to the table – the former is an absolute brute and the latter is a freakish athlete – but between the two of them lurks a lasting solution to a problem almost two decades old.
So, next time we want to argue about Handrè Pollard or Elton Jantjies, think about the fact that the team currently has no bouncers.
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