Boks: Rassie goes for guile over grunt
Cape Town – The Springboks, at least at the outset on Saturday night, will have a fair old crack at outsmarting, outpacing and out-skilling France.
And why not, a lot of observers will contend: the host nation are rooted to humdrum eighth on the global ladder and a preference for a cruder, more bludgeoning approach – at least on paper -- to downing them might interfere with Rassie Erasmus’s quest to install certain more progressive, unpredictable hallmarks into his team with RWC 2019 in mind.
Especially in the way he has set out his pack for Stade de France (22:05 kick-off, SA time), the head coach clearly retains confidence that his charges can win this one without having to necessarily resort to a grinding-style, dour arm wrestle to eke out a possibly low-scoring victory.
By resisting the still immensely attractive temptation to field Pieter-Steph du Toit back at blindside flank – where he had been one of the finds of the international year, until his recent reversion to the second row – and also return iron-man Duane Vermeulen to his more comfortable habitat of eighth-man, Erasmus clearly believes in some senses that he can potentially go “round”, rather than necessarily “through” the French in pursuit of a much-needed win in game two of the four-match European tour.
Still, the risk is considerable.
I wrote earlier this week, and haven’t substantially altered my view, that the recent history of late-night matches between these particular foes in Paris suggests that constructive passages of rugby are few and far between: the Boks have won both of the last two games there (2013 and 2017) but in each instance the theme was heavily “industrial” with gains made in slow and parsimonious yards.
That is the main reason why I am just a little surprised that Erasmus did not opt to both bulk up his forward unit and give them some taller timber for lineout purposes – let’s face it, an area they are probably a little spooked after Twickenham – by making the changes I believed he would.
In the unfortunate absence this week of chief tight-five enforcer Eben Etzebeth, the merry-go-round of sorts with the seemingly uncomplaining Du Toit continues: for this Test, he switches to the No 4 “front” chore rather than the cares of middle jumper (and more often than not lineout call manager).
That shouldn’t instantly be viewed with any discomfort: back in 2013, in his second of four seasons as SA head coach, Heyneke Meyer made the observation of Du Toit that he “plays like a four lock” even as he trumpeted his virtues as a future giant of the No 5 role, where he remains more familiar in the second row.
At the time, the man from the Swartland was, indeed, operating at four in his franchise spell with the Sharks, where more athletically-geared, if you like, partner Franco van der Merwe wore the other lock jersey.
Still, a certain re-adjustment, including mentally, will be required when the player partners the returning trojan Franco Mostert (ineligible against England last week) against the French.
With Du Toit staying closer to the major heat of the boiler-room on Saturday and Vermeulen again doing duty at seven, the Boks have simultaneously ensured – and yes, this may prove no bad thing at all – that Warren Whiteley provides both a touch of subtlety and injection of some extra speed to the loose trio.
He did some smart things at Twickenham, including literally having a hand in S’bu Nkosi’s lone try of the surrendered contest, and Whiteley’s considerable fan club, especially in Johannesburg and environs, will be chuffed he gets another start, also adding to the leadership intelligentsia.
There will be an intriguing clash of style when he comes up against 115kg Louis Picamoles, the gnarly, recalled near 33-year-old French No 8 who will earn a 70th cap (and seventh against SA) and isn’t as swift from the blocks as his Lions-based opposite number.
With rain remaining stubbornly in the Parisian forecast at varying points on Saturday ahead of the Test match, a personal leaning would still have been toward a more horses-for-courses approach by the Boks in this berth, by pitching the more physical Vermeulen into direct combat at eight against Picamoles.
“Thor” tends to particularly relish No 8 scraps with similarly large units – think back to his stirring dominance of Billy Vunipola during the June home series against England.
But the cerebral Whiteley will look to boss Picamoles in other ways and there seems no special reason why this should not transpire, in fairness, especially if the going is dry and firm enough.
Also to consider is that if Plan A looks in any danger of going awry for the Springboks, Erasmus still has the option – via his subtitutes – of shifting Du Toit to flank at some point during the contest and Vermeulen also potentially adjusting his position to his greater-favoured one.
A lot of Bok enthusiasts will be quietly praying, of course, that no panic measures, or “after the horse has bolted” steps, are required at Stade de France …
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