Bok skipper 2018: A five-way race?
Cape Town - Whether or not besieged head coach Allister Coetzee somehow survives into the Rassie Erasmus era as director of rugby, the Springbok captaincy comes back into sharp focus for next year’s international season.
That is largely because the labouring Boks have been in the hands of a caretaker leader - Eben Etzebeth - for the lion’s share of the 2017 campaign, and Warren Whiteley, technically the incumbent, should be fighting fit again for a possible return to the helm in 2018.
But would either be the primary contenders under a significantly rejigged coaching regime?
Arguably three other candidates present themselves as options going forward.
So here, in alphabetical order, are the five most feasible “short-listers” suggested by Sport24, with strengths and snags in each case assessed:
Well, he did lead from the proverbial front, given the vast “presence” he offers physically -- and as probably the best, most nailed-down Springbok player generally right now.
I don’t believe any of the ongoing shortcomings in the Bok performances during 2017 were due to major drawbacks on Etzebeth’s emergency captaincy front.
He seemed to like the post, command team respect, and Bok “gees” seldom seemed glaringly absent; their bad days, frankly, looked considerably more attributable to tactical and game-plan weaknesses beyond the white lines.
Not the most gifted or natural of communicators in the heat of battle, perhaps, and there are those who believe he should be left to focus solely on his personal responsibilities as the major Bok “hard guy” in the engine room (though that never stopped someone like Martin Johnson successfully doing a double task for his World Cup-winning England?).
Etzebeth is also not hugely forthcoming or comfortable at the PR/media functions of the job … though that doesn’t have to be weighed as the be all and end all, by my book.
A very animated and passionate individual, often a key hallmark of decent leadership -- also leads the Stormers in Super Rugby, and has been doing so with some aplomb thus far.
Charismatic Kolisi also ticks the far from unimportant box of transformation poster figure, and the time will come when the Boks desire, or might be politically pressured to some extent in having, a first black African player as full-time captain.
Possibly plays his best rugby when he is in charge of things, too?
Although he made enormous strides to subduing this concern during 2017, the Boks should have a fuller house of loose forward options next year and there will be pressure on all comers in those slots to justify starting berths.
There is with Kolisi, after all (and despite his pleasingly varied skill set) the ongoing debate of which flanker berth actually suits him best.
A long-held personal belief is that open-side remains his most productive habitat. If he is going to be the No 7, however, my own proviso would be that a bruiser like Duane Vermeulen (see below) is at eighth-man for necessary grunt and balance in the loose trio.
A cerebral captain once of the Junior Boks, still-youthful Pollard (23) has perhaps slightly under-valued possibilities as a Bok skipper.
He is confident, articulate and astute in the role, and someone like Victor Matfield, the most capped Springbok and a sound judge of many areas in rugby, sings his praises on the leadership front.
Considering its strategic importance, flyhalf isn’t the worst place to pull the team strings from.
He could still be said to be feeling his way back from the effects of a couple of pretty serious, long-term injuries, and would be a dark horse for a sudden elevation to the Bok captaincy simply because he is anything but firmly anchored yet to the No 10 jersey.
Still, he was starting to show encouraging signs of recovering his Test mojo of around three years ago towards the end of 2017, and an assertive Super Rugby for the Bulls might catapult him closer into contention than some people imagine.
Just being “Big Duane Vermeulen”, really: something of a colossus in a Bok team not exactly oozing globally-revered characters at present.
The brawny No 8 made a couple of satisfying comeback appearances for the Test team recently, and the whispers that he may be done with Toulon by June and returning homeward would stiffen his Bok captaincy case a lot – he has shown he is a suitably inspirational skipper in his Newlands tenure with the Stormers.
Getting on a bit, at 31, although that should not stop him from possibly leading the charge up to and including RWC 2019 in Japan.
As things stand, being French-based – with the question marks that raises over conditioning levels, true levels of SA loyalty and so on – remains a drawback.
I’d say he’s still the most natural and appealing of the five purely from a captaincy point of view.
Like Kolisi, he gets huge motivation in his own game just by being the leader of the troops, and he is popular in the dressing room, liaises well with referees and presents an excellent public image.
Remember he has only led the Boks twice as intended regular skipper before his season-ending injury, but they were both comfortable home victories over France with Whiteley well in command of things.
As a mobile, clever player, he gives the Boks a healthy linking-play option … and this is an area where they badly need to get some X-factor back.
The Vermeulen complicator! What if Erasmus and his fellow wise men deem it essential that “Thor” is the Bok No 8 next year?
Truth be told, under such circumstances, it is hard to see the rangy Whiteley fitting comfortably into either of the flank positions.
So the best chance of Whiteley retaining the Bok skipper’s status is if Vermeulen is asked to pick up the blindside flank tab - something he is well capable of doing, actually.
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