Fullback stays frail area for Boks

Allister Coetzee (Gallo)
Allister Coetzee (Gallo)

Cape Town – It may well have induced a wince from illustrious Springbok No 15s of the past like HO de Villiers, Gysie Pienaar, Andre Joubert and Percy Montgomery.

When coach Allister Coetzee named a 31-strong squad on Saturday for the first two Tests of the Castle Rugby Championship against Argentina, it rather glaringly – all other berths were at least moderately formally covered -- did not include any single player given the specific description of “fullback”.

Instead the presence of a couple of “utility backs” provided an unconvincing, sole reassurance that Coetzee had not completely overlooked staffing needs for the last line of defence in the brace of early tournament clashes with the Pumas, starting at Mbombela Stadium in a fortnight.

Even then, only one of the two dedicated versatile characters announced, Racing 92’s Johan Goosen, looks properly suited to possible deployment at the back for the Boks – the other, Francois Hougaard, offers more proven options at scrumhalf and wing.

So it is anybody’s guess as to whether Coetzee has a clear-cut plan in mind for No 15; it also tells you just how far the erratic Willie le Roux’s stocks must have fallen that he was omitted (we knew that was the intention a few days ago) without any out-and-out specialist being named as obvious candidate to fill the void.

Still, we would also be jumping the gun if we suggested the coach had succumbed to some degree of madness or malaise over what is generally regarded as a fairly important role in a rugby team.

It is more a reflection that, for a variety of reasons and many of them related to injury, stocks are well less than impressive or abundant at fullback right now.

Let’s not forget that even when South Africa ‘A’ went into a useful two-match exercise against a strong England Saxons combo in June, they produced a bit of a curveball by asking the Stormers’ wing whippet, Leolin Zas, to suddenly wear the No 15 jersey.

There are certainly options within the extended squad at the head coach’s disposal for fullback -- and they may even turn out to be good ones -- but whoever he stations there against Argentina, it will be someone who has not consistently been operating in the role in recent times.

By process of elimination, it seemingly has to be one of Goosen, the fairly lanky overseas-based customer who is also au fait with the needs of flyhalf and midfield, Jesse Kriel or Ruan Combrinck.

Kriel, of course, made his big international breakthrough during Heyneke Meyer’s tenure last year, very strongly on the grounds of inspiring showings at fullback for the Bulls in Super Rugby 2015, although Meyer overwhelmingly favoured him as an outside centre and he began to form a very sound alliance with Damian de Allende.

The chunky 22-year-old has yo-yoed a bit between No 15 and midfield for his franchise this season, so he is not exactly in a single-minded mode for fullback for his country as things stand – though he ought to regain fullest familiarity pretty quickly if asked to do so.

He would probably jump at the chance just to start again for the Boks, given the pretty good likelihood that De Allende and recent Lions dangerman Lionel Mapoe will get further time to develop an understanding in midfield after being blooded against Ireland in June with strictly limited success.

But Coetzee has already noted the adaptable possibilities for Combrinck, such a tenacious, zesty debutant on the wing for the Boks a few weeks ago and one of relatively few Lions players to produce best or near-best personal levels in Saturday’s Super Rugby final reverse to the Hurricanes in Wellington.

Combrinck, also an alert defender, has prior schooling at fullback and certainly the ability to punch major holes in defences from the more expansive space often offered to a No 15 for ball-in-hand raids.

Yet Goosen may well have the inside lane to occupy the position shortly; he would bring a monster clearing boot to the cause, decent running skills of his own and just a dollop of tallish timber to what could otherwise be a relatively short-in-stature Bok back three now that veteran JP Pietersen has also been overlooked.

Speaking of big kicking games, a certain Frans Steyn, who would have offered rosy credentials for fullback in the present climate of fluidity there, continues to be ignored; maybe those various tiffs with SA officialdom really do mean the 29-year-old is “history” in green-and-gold terms.

Coetzee also could not consider the attractive claims of Pat Lambie for No 15 – he has started seven Tests for the Boks in that berth and often done so very assuredly – as the Sharks captain remains worryingly sidelined with concussion-related issues.

Further, a bright young future prospect in the shape of 21-year-old Warrick Gelant (Bulls) remains absent for the rest of the year with knee ligament damage.

The Boks aren’t quite scraping a barrel, but fullback is certainly an area marked by murkiness rather than clarity.

We should within days get an idea of “Toetie’s” short-term solution for it …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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