The loss of Duane Vermeulen for the Rugby Championship has understandably been described as a massive blow to the Springboks – but could it be a blessing in disguise?
Talismanic Vermeulen, thanks to his workload, has become yet another victim of wear-and-tear and there are fears that the Boks will suffer without his refractory presence.
However, it might just be for the good because the absence of the man nicknamed for the God of Thunder, Thor, might well force Allister Coetzee and his newly installed crew into a change of approach they appear to have been resisting.
The message from the Springbok camp has basically come down to “Super Rugby is not Test match rugby.”
This in response to various calls for the Boks to start embracing the all-out attacking style of the Lions.
Coetzee, well aware of the reality that Springbok defeats are not tolerated, is clearly tilting towards a more traditional style of play because he knows change won’t happen overnight.
Hopefully, though, the new coach is not adverse to change because it is no longer debatable – the Boks are not bigger, stronger and more physical than their top opponents.
Something more has to be added and Vermeulen, a player who likes to play in the close channels and is not known for roaming, being unavailable could tip the scales towards a more daring style of play.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, told of Frik du Preez addressing a group of New Zealand schoolboys in Gisborne and coming out with the marvellous phrase: “Always remembers boys, rugby is about the four Ps – possession, position, pace and support!”
Of course it’s amusing but that last word, with the Ps in the middle, contains the essence of the new direction Springbok rugby and every South African team below them need to embark on.
Support has been the key to the Lions’ play this season; it was a fundamental of Izak van Heerden’s visionary notion of how rugby should be played, it’s what puts New Zealand on top of the podium and what Eddie Jones is trying to inculcate into English rugby.
Without support one can’t play “expansive” rugby – the triangles or diamonds of back-up simply have to be in place, constantly.
In the Lions, for instance, the rest of the team knew that if Ruan Combrinck caught the ball near the right-hand touchline and decided to run they had to get numbers back and in position to support him. If one of the centres went for the outside break, the loosies had to work to surround him with pairs of hands to offload to.
Doc Craven was fond of saying that he always picked a flank who scored tries (Rob Louw was a fine example) but it was because that loose forward had the stamina and pace to be in support.
Support (and obviously handling) is the kernel of New Zealand’s currently superior game and rather than trying to stifle them in the old “kragdadig” way, my contention is that we need to mould our talent to find a Springbok brand that is better than the Silver Fern.
I am certainly not advocating giving up our physicality, grinding defence, superb lineout work and often outstanding scrummaging, because that is the bedrock of the South African game.
But all our teams need to play faster, be “clevererer” (as the little tyke in the Toyota ad says) and use the full width of the field.
To do that a new attitude has to be adopted and the right kind of player selected; especially forwards who, like Ardie Savea, can do the grinding and still turn up outside a wing.
For too long our teams have played a stilted game because of forward packs who simply did not like the ball to be taken wide and out of their comfort zone.
The time to start is now. Unlike Heyneke Meyer, who blinked at the fear of failure, let’s hope Allister Coetzee decides to let out the reins and instil an atmosphere in which the players, at the very least, are encouraged to have a go.