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Rugby | Springboks

Captaincy issue tops Bok agenda

The first entry on the order of business for the Springboks when they gather in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday will be to settle on who leads them during the bulk of the Castle Lager Rugby Championship season.

With Warren Whiteley set to sit out at least another six weeks because of the groin injury that prevented him from leading his team in the final test against France at the end of June and which kept him out of the last stages of Vodacom Super Rugby, the Boks are going to have to find a captain who might be in charge for the entire competition.

That is different to appointing a captain for one game in an emergency situation because of an 11th hour withdrawal, as happened when Eben Etzebeth took over for the dead rubber test at Emirates Airlines Park. At this point, it looks touch and go whether Whiteley will be back in time for the home tests against Australia and New Zealand that traditionally end the Rugby Championship season, and coach Allister Coetzee will recognise that possibility.

As the team’s vice-captain, Etzebeth was the natural choice for the one-off in June, but there were many who asked why Etzebeth’s skipper at his Super Rugby franchise, Siya Kolisi, was not entrusted with the task.

It might have come down to the fact that Etzebeth is just more established at international level, but the feeling on the press benches was that perhaps the Bok management and South African rugby hierarchy didn’t want to make the landmark decision of choosing the first black Bok captain for a test match without having a chance to make a fuss of it.

Etzebeth’s selection to captain the team was only publicised on the day of the game.

The Boks are in an era of participatory management so whatever decision is taken will probably be guided by the team leaders. It is important to note that Coetzee did say after the French series in June that it was always understood that Etzebeth would lead if Whiteley was injured. But there might be a different view adopted for a more long-term appointment.

Unsurprisingly the flyhalf selections in the 33-man squad named after the Super Rugby final at the weekend have proven the biggest talking point. Elton Jantjies didn’t do anything to concern Coetzee in the Super Rugby decider and has made up over the last two weeks for his walkabout in the quarterfinal against the Sharks, but the question of who will back Jantjies up is a problematic one.

Coetzee has spoken of young Curwin Bosch’s selection in terms that suggest he is there to gain experience of being part of the squad rather than being thrown to the wolves by having to start a test match at this embryonic stage of his senior career.

Handre Pollard has 20 test caps to his name and is in the squad but he hasn’t played much rugby since the 2015 World Cup and Coetzee has spoken of the need for the management team to be able to monitor his rehabilitation and his comeback to the playing field.

Interestingly, as a contracted national player, Pollard cannot play Currie Cup rugby, which could backfire on Coetzee if disaster strikes and Janjties is injured early in the Championship.

The question is – what does happen if Jantjies is injured? Frans Steyn was the back-up flyhalf against France but he has been excluded from the Championship group on the grounds that it is felt he needs a proper pre-season before going back into the rigours of the long European season.

The question of who will stand in for Whiteley at No8 is also a vexing one. Jean-Luc du Preez moved there as an 11th hour selection in the last test against France, but he looks more comfortable as a No 7. The back row for the Johannesburg game was Du Preez at No8, Jaco Kriel and Kolisi on the flanks.

The addition of Sharks No 8 Dan du Preez to the squad introduces the interesting possibility of two brothers being part of the same Bok starting back row. A loose trio that reads Kolisi, Jean-Luc du Preez and Dan du Preez would certainly have a formidable physical edge to it, though Kriel’s mobility and pace would be missed.

Although the Lions did not win Super Rugby, the manner of their exit should not puncture the confidence that they would have built up in the run to the final. Most commentators would say they were brave losers after having to play the entire second half with 14 men, and they showed just enough in the second half to suggest that had it been 15 against 15 the entire way, they could have won the game.

Of course, Coetzee would have preferred the Lions, who make up the core of his team, to join the squad having won the competition, but there is no reason after having beaten the Hurricanes so convincingly and pushed the Crusaders that the result would have dented momentum.

The Boks do have to be realistic though. Beating or pushing New Zealand teams at altitude is a very different proposition to playing the All Blacks in New Zealand and right now the objective should be to just take each game as it comes and start the climb back up the world rankings that way rather than trying to compare themselves with the best team on the planet at this point.

They start the Championship against Argentina in Port Elizabeth on 19 August before playing the same opponents away the following week, and two wins there will push their winning streak to five matches. After last year’s disasters that will ensure a good mental space before the trip to Australasia in the first half of next month.


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