Hey Allister, load the Boks with Lions!
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee’s best chance of immediate success is to load his run on XV with Lions players and to trust the continuity of South Africa’s best Super Rugby team to beat the best of France.
Coetzee would have had limited time to work with his squad and the inconsistency in selection in 2016 means he doesn’t have a settled and winning base from which to start.
Time will not be on Coetzee’s side and neither will public sympathy should he drop the first Test to France.
There are several French-based South African players who are essential to the winning of the three-Test series. Just how they are used, be it in a starting capacity, from the bench or by way of integration through the first and second Test, is a question only Coetzee can answer.
His answer could well determine whether he is around to coach the Springboks in the Rugby Championship. Failure against France surely would mean the end of a tenure that so far has produced just four wins in 12 Tests.
I don’t believe France has the mental capacity to triumph in a series in South Africa. They certainly can pick a side capable of winning one of the three Tests but their overseas touring history is characterised by one off victories and not series’ success stories.
Coetzee’s Springboks can’t afford to give the French early momentum through selecting a side whose players are not familiar with each other. Coetzee in 2016 made the mistake of only selecting a few of the Lions key players. He initially left out the likes of Jaco Kriel, Malcolm Marx, Warren Whiteley, Franco Mostert and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, who were key components of the Lions success.
Coetzee invested in players he knew from when he coached them at the Stormers. He was insistent they were his winners based on two Currie Cup successes but as he found out Currie Cup success doesn’t automatically translate to imposing Test results.
Quite the contrary because the standards simply can’t be compared.
The Lions have for the last two seasons been the best South African team in Super Rugby and easily in the top three in the competition. The Hurricanes, on balance, are marginally ahead over the last two seasons performances, which explains their home and away success against the Lions.
But for the most the Lions have been a force whose player combinations, style of play and mental resolves demand greater international reward from the Bok coach.
Coetzee in 2016 insisted the demands of Test rugby were different to Super Rugby. He dismissed the Lions Super Rugby return on the basis that Test rugby wasn’t about scoring tries. He told rugby journalists they lived in a fantasy world if they expected Test rugby to be about tries. A week later the All Blacks scored nine tries against Coetzee’s Springboks in Durban.
The Springboks’ contribution was five Morne Steyn penalty goals in a record 57-15 home defeat.
Coetzee’s issue with the Lions players starts with flyhalf Elton Jantjies. The coach destroyed the player’s confidence when he spent a season at the Stormers and in 2016 took a month to break down all Jantjies had produced as one of the stars of Super Rugby.
Coetzee has to believe in the qualities of the Lions in every aspect of their being and, when picking the core of the Lions team, allow the players to produce the style of play that has worked for them over the last two years. He also has to select Lions combinations and not break up the combinations.
I have been insistent that French-based Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis have to be part of the match-23 in the opening Test. The trio adds gravitas. Another veteran who brings experience, physicality and rugby intelligence to the back three is Leicester-based JP Pietersen. The quartet remains better than those playing the same positions in South Africa. Ruan Pienaar and Francois Hougaard are two more examples of overseas-based players who would improve a Bok match-23.
I’d integrate the overseas-based players into the mix over the first two Tests but invest largely with a team well versed in a winning culture and battle hardened in all the right ways. I’d turn to the Lions to provide the basis of the first Test challenge.
Coetzee’s ego may not allow for this but I do hope that he may see the logic in employing this strategic approach.
Many of the leading coaches are often quoted as saying the 15 best individual players don’t necessarily combine to make the best 15. There are individuals who are better than those who play for the Lions but what makes the Lions strong is that they are a team and not a team of individuals.
Coetzee must put his Lions prejudice to one side and back the skills and form of players nearing their peak as a team.
I’ve written it before and remain convinced that, if not Vermeulen, then local based Jaco Kriel should captain the Springboks and that the run on XV against France should feature the bulk of his regional Lions teammates.
The overseas-based players can then initially add impact from the bench with the intention being that by the third Test and leading into the Rugby Championship they could be settled enough to be starting options.
I also don’t buy into the conditioning theory that discounts the selection of South African players based in France. What does it say about the challenge of a French team whose entire match 23 plays alongside those French-based South African players supposedly not fit or conditioned enough to play Test rugby for the Springboks?
If that was the case then why even take France seriously?
Coetzee will be taking France seriously and he also has to take seriously the Test claims of those world-class South African players based in France.
Coetzee can’t underestimate France and he also can’t underestimate the importance of the Lions players if the Springboks are to beat France.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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