Allister still rewarding the innocuous

Allister Coetzee (Getty Images)
Allister Coetzee (Getty Images)

Cape Town - You might say a shiny locomotive has been attached, in the form of Warren Whiteley, and certain gratifying, sleek new carriages added as well.

But Allister Coetzee’s first Springbok train of 2017 also carries a few too many conspicuous “passengers”.

Put differently, there seems an oversupply of reward in his 31-man squad for the French challenge to players who have struggled to move beyond humdrum in performance terms – either during the ill-fated 2016 Test season or, more recently, in this year’s Super Rugby.

Or both, frankly.

Indeed, his group includes certain players who haven’t even been obvious, routine first choices in their specific positions for their franchises ... which does send out a strange, unsatisfactory sort of message.

Due allowance must be made, of course, for the right of the national coach - any national coach - to highly regard players who may not be comprehensively, consistently backed by the wise men at their Super Rugby (or other first-class) homes.

It happens worldwide.

There is also a formidable mid-year list of injuries - though when haven’t previous Bok coaches suffered this inevitable drawback after several months of Super Rugby attrition? - and South African selectors, in addition, have other requirements in squad make-up which they cannot blithely ignore. 

But Coetzee is under greater pressure than most other chief coaches of major international rugby powers to turn around the violently waning fortunes of his twice World Cup-winning team.

In that context, I just fear his “clean-out” from the horrors of 2016 may not be quite as comprehensive or profound as it should.

I still get too strong a whiff of mediocrity - that can be an overly diplomatic expression, sometimes - and/or dead wood amidst the Bok furniture, something that could come home to haunt Coetzee all too quickly even as he already battles a public sea of discontent.

For a series where scrummaging could play a significant role in determining the outcome, for example, the Boks’ tighthead prop resources look vulnerable, questionable.

Little more than a year ago, the presence of Frans Malherbe would have been gratifying; even before that, there was a case for saying he deserved earlier promotion to the starting plans for his country around the time seasoned Jannie du Plessis trudged through his twilight phase for the country and didn’t do enough of note outside the set-piece.

But at a juncture when his career should be booming, the now 26-year-old Malherbe has only regressed for the Stormers this year - from co-captain and a key pack figure in 2016 - to the point that the considerably more raw Wilco Louw, 22, slightly beats him for game-time in the competition thus far.

The stocky, 130kg Louw has looked more forceful at all-important scrum-time and might have been an enterprising bolter for the Test squad; he is at least given SA ‘A’ recognition as a good stepping stone in his development.

Malherbe just doesn’t seem to have had any great fire in his belly this year, although the June window would be a perfect time to change that, and serve fresh notice of his longer-term potential in green and gold.

While a first-time call-up for the Lions’ Ruan Dreyer is a pleasing move, there will certainly be lingering concern among scrum purists that Coenie Oosthuizen stays in the Bok tighthead frame, too.

The burly Sharks man is very much still learning his trade on the “wrong” side of the engine room and continues to have as many torrid days in the scrum as he has solid enough ones.

Oosthuizen has upped his conditioning and around-the-park work-rate significantly this season, which does make him a pretty appealing second-half impact prospect for the Boks ... but what if the first-choice No 3 gets crocked in the 10th minute and he has to pack down for virtually the full Test match against a formidable rival scrum?

There is also a case, at Bok loosehead prop, of one player - Lizo Gqoboka - cracking Coetzee’s nod despite playing second fiddle in Super Rugby 2017 exposure terms to someone else: Gqoboka has had 429 minutes for the Bulls, in comparison with Pierre Schoeman’s 451.

I am among those who would have preferred anyway a call-up for the dynamic, low-chassis Ox Nche of the Cheetahs who makes bone-crunching hits in open play and stays suitably upright a lot in rampages with ball in hand.

There is also relatively little compelling video evidence from Sharks matches, I’d submit, to justify the return from a relative wilderness of hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle, who last played for the Springboks four years ago and is no spring chicken - he is closing in on his 31st birthday.

In Coetzee’s defence, and once he had decided to debatably bypass Montpellier’s gnarly, hugely proven Bismarck du Plessis, perhaps Ralepelle’s very experience is seen as a balancer to the still lean Test careers of both Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi.

Having basked for so many post-isolation years in the respective wonders who were Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez, Springbok scrumhalf resources continue to look worrisomely thin at present, and to be blunt the retention of someone like Rudy Paige only underlines it.

Although he has a near-permanently effervescent attitude, Paige all too seldom matches it with noticeably game-influencing ability, and even for the Bulls it has been just too apparent again this year: he is outdone in match minutes by 482 to 343 even by the erratic Piet van Zyl.

Speaking of the Bulls, whose broader woes have clearly had the effect of damaging the effectiveness of specific individuals, Lood de Jager remains an inexplicable shadow of the player who fronted up so stirringly at RWC 2015, and Jan Serfontein also falls well short of the rich expectations everyone had for him when he was an under-20 wunderkind - but both make the Bok cut again.

Another rather stubborn flat-liner still in the mix is Oupa Mohoje, who has more talent than he may realise but for whatever reason continues for the Cheetahs to be effective more in his track-back tackling than for any offensive oomph - and powerful “go-forward” is really what you are looking for first and foremost in a blindside flanker, aren’t you?

His attack stats, by way of illustration, come notably second to the SA ‘A’-restricted Jean-Luc du Preez in Super Rugby at this point: the robust Sharks man has made 372 metres and produced 119 carries, to the languid Mohoje’s 243 and 69 respectively - although the latter is, admittedly, a bigger lineout factor.

My overall verdict on Coetzee’s squad selection, after a day or two’s digestion: has done OK, missed chance to do much better.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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