Bok centre pair: Strength or liability?

Jesse Kriel (Getty Images)
Jesse Kriel (Getty Images)

Cape Town – They are becoming increasingly familiar as a first-choice combination for the Springboks.

But just how blessed is the current SA midfield by the presence of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel, who have started all of the last three Tests in those berths together and plenty more internationals as a unit previously?

It is a head-scratching matter, with no straightforward answers.

That both can be seriously influential at the premier level is largely beyond dispute: we’ve seen more than enough evidence of that over the course of their respective 35- and 38-cap Bok careers.

But “can be”, of course, also doesn’t automatically mean “almost always are” … and there is the ongoing debate about whether they actually cut it, suitability-wise as a package, as the centre alliance or instead rely more on decent moments of inspiration as individuals to retain their team tickets.

What you certainly get from both is physical solidity (No 12 De Allende is agreeably tall, into the bargain, while Kriel is a bagful of stocky muscle in the outside channel) and that’s always a good starting point, like it or not, in modern rugby’s no-place-to-hide midfield.

They are good tackle-busters and committed carriers and De Allende, especially, has some under-rated – though also sometimes underused in recent times – stepping skills that can pleasingly shift the path of Springbok attacks in limited space.

Kriel arguably demonstrates better levels of concentration as a defender; his partner is more prone to occasionally missing the initial tackle on a rival raider but makes up for it with his own willingness to stride purposefully up to and sometimes over the advantage line.

De Allende did that time and again in the controversial, desperately tight Twickenham clash with England almost two weeks ago, earning some rave reviews from home-based commentators – like former Test flyhalf Stuart Barnes – for the “constant problems” he caused to the English midfield.

But even then, I believe it would be true to say that both he and Kriel continue to attract critical scrutiny from back home for their ability – perhaps inability is the more relevant word? – to tee up regular enough opportunities out wide for the increasingly sharp, hungry Bok wings.

Pepping up Bok resources in those “flier” positions has been one of the most positive hallmarks of head coach Rassie Erasmus’s tenure thus far, with Aphiwe Dyantyi – already nominated for the World Rugby Breakthrough of the Year Award – S’bu Nkosi and Cheslin Kolbe all showing elusiveness, pace and a very healthy nose for the try-line.

Between that trio alone, there have been 21 Bok appearances (11 of them to Dyantyi) so far in 2018, with an impressive total of 12 tries purely from their ranks.

Some dot-downs, of course, have been opportunistic (no problem with that?) or emanating from broken-play situations, and Bok enthusiasts are more than a little restless for the ball to be fed to them in more conventional attacking moves as well.

While the Boks have also employed the box-kick very liberally – almost certainly to excess in the last-gasp triumph over France in Paris last Saturday – the centres are important conduits often enough in ensuring chances are created for the wings.

In that respect, there is a case for ongoing protestation that both De Allende and Kriel, for all their attributes, have not been providing enough front-foot ball for the speedsters nearby.

They do give the impression at times, even if one or the other has made some initial carrying gains, of “dying” with the ball or basically running the wings into dead-ends by detrimentally using up available space themselves.

Between them as a combo, do they offer enough in the way of both orthodox passing/offloading ability and draw-and-pass qualities? Do they possess optimal levels of peripheral vision?

I believe the jury’s out, despite their healthy levels of Test experience now and ability to perform plenty of their chores well.

Game three of the European tour against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday may serve up few excuses for them not to bring their wider colleagues more prominently into play.

The match ought to be generally more fluid than the one at Stade de France (“Scotland like to move the ball around,” reminded former Bok coach and end-of-year results maestro Heyneke Meyer to Sport24 recently) and conditions look unusually good at this long-range point too; a cloudless, fairly mild evening is in prospect in Edinburgh.

If the Boks look too stilted and predictable on attack, and their wings again catch the proverbial colds too much of the time, counter-suggestions for the midfield personnel – like a punt some time on Handre Pollard’s credentials as a twelve, or a recall up the line for the skilful, Montpellier-based Jan Serfontein in either berth – may stay on the punditry table.

It’s time for an agreeably rounded showing from Messrs De Allende and Kriel …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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