CAPE TOWN – The ongoing conjecture at No 8 will continue for Springbok coach Allister Coetzee on the end-of-year tour after regular captain Warren Whiteley was officially ruled out of the November trip on Thursday.
Coetzee was still hopeful that his first-choice No 8 would be able to travel next month for Tests against Ireland (November 11), France (November 18), Italy (November 25) and Wales (December 2).
But SA Rugby confirmed on Thursday that Whiteley has not yet recovered sufficiently from a groin injury that has sidelined him since the third Test against France in June.
Prop Coenie Oosthuizen (arm) and Uzair Cassiem (rib), though, have recovered and will be available for selection, but Duane Vermeulen is still out injured following groin surgery in July.
SA Rugby said that the Toulon No 8 is busy with the final stage of his rehabilitation and is not ready to play.
Whiteley sat out of that final clash at Ellis Park, as well as the entire Rugby Championship, which has seen lock Eben Etzebeth step into the captaincy role.
And while Whiteley’s leadership qualities have definitely been missed, his ability as a rangy, creative No 8 has been an even bigger loss for the Boks.
With Bok coach Allister Coetzee’s stubborn refusal to pick a specialist No 8 such as the in-form Nizaam Carr, Andisa Ntsila and even Dan du Preez at the back of the scrum, the likes of Cassiem, Jean-Luc du Preez and now Francois Louw – all recognised flanks – have been forced to operate in unfamiliar territory, to the detriment of the team and the individuals concerned.
It is also a pity that Sikhumbuzo Notshe’s progress has been affected by injury, and he is now playing off the bench for WP in the latter stages of the Currie Cup.
The Boks have lacked Whiteley’s knack of finding space to operate in on attack, while his classy touches out wide and his excellent lineout jumping has also hampered the overall approach.
Coetzee said at the beginning of the year that the Boks are moving to a different, more attacking style of play based around ball-in-hand rugby, of which Whiteley was an integral part of.
Yet in the absence of the Lions skipper, the coach has refused to pick a like-for-like replacement in Carr, who has five Test caps, and has rather opted for “grinders” like Cassiem, Jean-Luc du Preez and Louw, who all tend to look for contact first instead of keeping the ball alive and stretching the defence.
This has resulted in an unbalanced loose trio during the Rugby Championship, with Kolisi effectively having to carry out Whiteley’s duties on attack by lining up in the wide channels, but which means that he is unable to fulfil his primary role as a combative ball-carrier at close quarters – which suits his style better.
And despite Pieter-Steph du Toit’s barnstorming display against the All Blacks as a No 7 flank last week, his loose-forward colleagues Kolisi and Louw had rather quiet games, and that is arguably down to confusion over role definitions.
If Du Toit is the primary ball-carrier, what happens to Kolisi, who is in the team for that same role?
Louw looked lost as a No 8 at Newlands, as time and again it was hooker Malcolm Marx who was contesting the breakdowns instead of him, which is his main attribute.
So, Coetzee will have to think long and hard about the man who will wear the No 8 jersey in Europe.
Will he end his “boycott” of Carr, who is a similar player to Whiteley, or go for the “traditional” big Vermeulen-type in Dan du Preez, who was part of the Bok Rugby Championship squad?
Will Cassiem be 100 percent in time for the Ireland Test? What about Ntsila, or Louw?
Meanwhile, SA Rugby said that the “contracted group and identified Springboks” will attend a four-day camp in Stellenbosch from Monday, October 23 ahead of the tour, with the final squad being named on Sunday, October 29, the day after the Currie Cup final.