Boks: Why Duane should return to No 8

Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)
Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Perhaps it is just the “French way”.

But for whatever reason, they often don’t make it too easy for opponents visiting them from warmer, southern climes by scheduling relatively late-night Test starting times despite the onset of winter in Europe.

For the third time in a row in a visit to Stade de France, the Springboks will on Saturday face a kick-off just after 21:00 in local time (in South African terms, it will be at 22:05).

That is long after the onset of darkness at this time of year, of course, and the temperature has been known to drop quite mercilessly.

Long-range weather forecasts suggest moderate rain on match-day, too, which could make for a heavy pitch and even less likelihood of a free-spirited, open affair.

It is no coincidence that both of the last two bilateral tussles at the formidable venue have been largely slugged out at close quarters and been anything but oil paintings as spectacles - the modern French side, no longer featuring the sort of flamboyant attacking figures of old, are as partial to seeking powerful yards at close quarters as the Boks can traditionally be.

South Africa have won each time (19-10 in 2013, under Heyneke Meyer’s coaching tenure, and 18-17 last year, near the finish of Allister Coetzee’s period in charge) but it has tended to be dour, mauling-dominated stuff and the portents for this weekend don’t look terribly different at this stage.

Neither side has managed more than two tries to their name in either contest, a further reflection of the conservative nature of the rugby served up.

Against that backdrop, it would not surprise this writer, and possibly others, in the least if Rassie Erasmus goes back to the formula - notably successful in each individual case this year - of fielding Duane Vermeulen in his more orthodox role of No 8 and also asking Pieter-Steph du Toit to return to blindside flank.

Vermeulen started an international for the first time (his 43rd cap) at No 7 in the agonising loss to England at Twickenham on Saturday, while Du Toit, after what could justifiably be branded a golden run of his own at blindside for four consecutive matches - including both classics against the All Blacks - was employed back in the second row, his old habitat, against Eddie Jones’s charges.

Both almost indisputably played well in a controversy-marked game the Boks really should have won … but perhaps without reaching quite the thunderous personal levels evidenced when they were in the other slots in games gone by this year.

Similarly, Warren Whiteley brought, as you might expect of him, some cerebral qualities to the loose trio as eighth-man at “Twickers” with his subtle hands skills and ability to pick some astute running lines.

In welcome afternoon sunshine and on a firm enough surface in London, the popular Lions leader did enough to make ditching him from the starting line-up for the next challenge a well less than straightforward decision.

But he is more of a cruiserweight figure in physical terms and the floodlit French Test may well persuade Erasmus that improved tonnage among his loosies - that would automatically occur if he brings back Du Toit to the side of scrum and moves the earthy “Thor” back to No 8 - is the way to go in Paris.

Just another reason for speculating with some vigour that the coach will be tempted to go such a route is the availability (at least reportedly at this stage) of Franco Mostert to potentially fill the No 5 lock void should Du Toit leave the tight five.

Erasmus has been enormously partial to the former Lions favourite this year, as his no-frills work-rate is pleasingly consistent - going a long way to explaining his eight starts from the 11 Tests thus far in 2018, although Mostert was ineligible because of out-of-window considerations last weekend.

Now with Gloucester - though there has been some contractual wrangling over his “transfer” - the man who turns 28 later this month has had a welcome few weeks of rest, something he probably desperately needed despite the amazing reliability of his engine.

My fairly confident call ahead of the team announcement later this week?

Vermeulen at eight, Du Toit seven and Mostert back in at five ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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