Italy: Boks MUST have guts to experiment

Warrick Gelant (Gallo Images)
Warrick Gelant (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Yes, there’s the spectre of that first-time defeat to Italy in Florence last year to have to contend with in the lead-up.

But if the still-fragile Springboks are going to obsess too much with that result, while they prepare for Saturday’s “revenge” Test against the Azzurri in Padova (15:00 SA time), it will only underline, frankly, their slip from more customary superpower status and the general sense of paranoia around them.

They showed raw courage and determination to pip France in Paris on Saturday, far more than they demonstrated any special sparkle or class. Purely because they stabilised their European tour in the results column, Allister Coetzee may be tempted to keep changes to a minimum for the Italian challenge.

But he is also carrying an ongoing overload of innocuous customers in his relatively uninspiring – more particularly in the back division -- starting XV, and the coach’s resistance to seeking improvement in certain positions has frankly become more than mystifying; it is much nearer inexplicable.

Reminder to “Toetie”: Italy are ranked a lowly 13th as things stand by World Rugby, were winless wooden-spoonists in this year’s Six Nations and their own November performances have been absolutely nothing to write home about thus far.

On Saturday, they were well beaten at home even by the presently unremarkable Argentina (31-15) and a week before that shared the try count 1-1 in staving off Fiji 19-10.

So the Boks, really, should not be quaking in their boots for this one.

The France triumph, which was praiseworthy enough in certain respects, does provide just a hint of breathing space for the embattled Coetzee and his lieutenants – they’ll be a smaller group this week, possibly not such a bad thing? – and if he has any longer-term consideration in the national interest (or lingering personal confidence) at all, he must employ some of his hitherto dormant squad members against the Italians.

The Boks have to do everything they can to convince themselves, and the world, that beating Italy ought to be comfortably attained with just about any combination drawn from the large touring group … the Boks, after all, are two-time World Cup champions, whatever their current difficulties.

It is probably a little too early to start speculating specifically yet over a possible XV to take to the field on Saturday, especially after respective bruising clashes with Ireland and France already and the need to think about game-time data and knocks and bumps for various players at this very late point of the SA season.

We know that flanker Siya Kolisi – just one customer who has had a lot of rugby in 2017 – will not be available for family-related reasons this weekend, and even if Pieter-Steph du Toit looks an appealing alternative fit at No 7, it remains to be seen whether he is deemed properly ready again after concussion-related issues from the ill-fated Irish date.

There is also the considerable concern over the fact that tour captain Eben Etzebeth has a leg injury of some kind after Paris, where he left the field in the final quarter after an influential, brawny showing.

A fuller medical verdict on his status was awaited at the time of writing.

It has to be said that around 70 percent of the reason the Boks continue to look a ho-hum outfit on this trip relates to shortcomings beyond the engine room.

The brightest shaft of light in a backline context was Francois Venter busying himself enthusiastically at inside centre against the French, but there was little more than that to genuinely enthuse over.

Men like Jesse Kriel, Andries Coetzee and Courtnall Skosan almost perpetually underwhelm and I may well not be the only observer almost pulling my hair out in the keenness to see a more meaningful shakeup in some of those troublesome “outside” areas.

It will also represent fairly bad management, I believe, if too many players in the extended squad, restricted to peripheral training duties thus far, go home not feeling they have made any meaningful contribution to the four-match mission.

Test caps should never be handed out simply for the sake of doing so, but the Boks also desperately need to expand their pool of options if they are to restore a much-needed cutting edge and fear factor to their backline.

What are the good reasons for being afraid to blood the likes of Warrick Gelant, Lukhanyo Am and Curwin Bosch against Italy?

Over to you on that one, Allister …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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