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The case for Jesse to wing it

When previous Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer chose Jesse Kriel on the wing for the 2015 home Rugby Championship clash with Argentina, he was pilloried for making that selection.

Much of the criticism sent in his direction ahead of that game against the Pumas was driven by a perception that he was playing Kriel out of position. To accommodate Kriel, Meyer also had to leave out a talented player, who just happened to be a specialist wing, in Lwazi Mvovo.

Of course, it did not help Meyer that the Pumas ended up winning that Kings Park fixture easily, and it was perhaps the significant moment that sent the Boks off path in that World Cup year. The defeat to Japan in Brighton is seen by many as the moment that the Meyer stint as coach earned condemned status, but it really started in Durban just under two months before that.

It was not Kriel’s selection on the wing though that let the Boks down that day. There were several mistakes made by Meyer, perhaps the biggest being his decision to push the conditioning angle hard that week rather than focus on the challenge posed by the Pumas.

Jean de Villiers, who made his return that day after a long injury lay-off, was clearly reintroduced too early. There was so much going wrong inside him that Kriel never really stood a chance.

Sitting in the Loftus press box on Saturday, I started to think that it might be time for the Bulls centre/fullback to be given another try on the wing. And there are no prizes for guessing why I say it: it does come down to size, though that is not the only consideration.

There were lots of things that went right for the Boks at Loftus in their first outing of 2017, but the back three was not one of those things. Being at the game it was noticeable how small the current South African back three is in comparison to the back threes that they will face in the much tougher games they will encounter later in the season.

Dillyn Leyds, the replacement wing who also doubles as a fullback for the Stormers, isn’t a particularly imposing physical specimen either. While the Boks do appear to have added some width to their game and added extra attacking options – let’s be honest, improvements can only be possible after last year’s non-performances – the Boks looked vulnerable when the French went wide at Loftus.

And while many will accuse me of being sizeist for calling for greater bulk on the wings, it is only logical that a team will feel more comfortable spreading the ball to those areas of the field if they are confident the players that play in those positions will not surrender the ball to the opposition.

Kriel has scored one or two great tries for a struggling Bulls team in Super Rugby this year, and many of them were what you would call classic wing tries. He has the bulk and the upper body strength the Boks need out wide, and to me his skill-set is better suited to wing than either fullback or outside centre.

To be specific, he isn’t the greatest kicker of the ball, something that is an imperative at fullback, and he is shown up at times defensively in the midfield. Neither is he necessarily the greatest creative player in the mix. What he does have though is pace and sublime running skills.

In short, he will bring physical substance to a back three that needs it. He will engage defenders, he will not be easily run over, and if he is isolated by the opposition it doesn’t represent the problem that it would when a smaller player is isolated and caught.

South African coaches who have appeared to be preoccupied with size have often come in for severe criticism for taking that stand. Jake White certainly was. But if there was more preoccupation with selecting size out wide it might have led to a greater willingness to bring width to the game.

I reckon the world probably missed out on seeing the finest ever Bok backline in action due to South Africa’s isolation from international competition in the 1980s. Ray Mordt was a muscular wing, and I was reminded when I watched an old video the other day that Carel du Plessis, during his playing days, did pack some muscle onto shoulders. He wasn’t big but he definitely wasn’t small.

At fullback in those days would have been the imposing presence of Johan Heunis, and Danie Gerber was as formidably built for a backline player of that era. With Michael du Plessis at inside centre and acting as play-maker outside Naas Botha, the ball would have gone wide often and with spectacular results.

The Stormers’ failures in New Zealand in Super Rugby provided a reminder that if South Africans are going to mix it with the Kiwis again and be competitive, the coaches need to become sizeist when it comes to selecting the outside backs.

If there was one obvious prong lacking from the Bok arsenal at Loftus, it was the absence of a big digit or two in the back three.

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