Many a South African heart sank at the news that Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen will be unavailable for the duration of the 2018 Rugby Championship campaign, putting an end to weeks of rumour and speculation in the media.
The immediate reaction to the news from the general public appeared to be that Warren Whiteley had recovered at the perfect time to slot into Vermeulen’s boots come the start of the four-nation international tournament.
Unfortunately, it’s not as a simple as that.
Vermeulen and Whiteley are vastly different beasts in both size and style, and handing the Bok No 8 jersey to the Lions captain would come at the expense of Siya Kolisi.
Despite competing for different jerseys, the Bok captain is a very similar player to the equally charming and inspirational Whiteley. Both bring significant Super Rugby experience to the table, both have led South Africa to victory in a June series, and neither rank among the biggest loose forwards to have donned the Green and Gold jersey.
What they both lack in brute size and physicality they make up for with plenty of athleticism. Whiteley and Kolisi can play a useful linking role between forwards and backs and they boast surprising pace, footwork and handling skills that pose a threat in the wide channels.
Neither shirk their responsibilities in the physical facets and, as their cumulative tally of 48 Test caps would suggest, they are quality players who both deserve to wear the Bok jersey. But not at the same time.
The three-match Test Series against England was a timely reminder that the Bok backline requires a forward pack that not only holds its own, but dominates the physical exchanges.
While Faf de Klerk is a gifted scrumhalf, he is not – as we saw in the final Test at Newlands — on the same all-round level as the likes of Ireland’s Connor Murray or New Zealand’s Aaron Smith.
De Klerk needs his forwards to give him plenty of go-forward ball and a couple hectares of room in order to showcase his range of skills.
When he has that he is a wonder to behold on the rugby field, but when he doesn’t (as was the case in Cape Town and regularly during the Rugby Championship during his previous outing with the Springboks in 2016) he is significantly less impressive.
A forward pack that has both Whiteley and Kolisi in starting jumpers cannot provide the physical dominance that De Klerk requires. When compared to the 117kg and 193cm frame of Vermeulen, it becomes apparent just how much mass South Africa would lose with Whiteley (108kg, 192cm) at No 8 in a back row that includes Kolisi (102kg, 188cm).
A situation where one starts and the other is unleashed off the bench (much like Sikhumbuzo Nothse was in the English Series) is the best solution.
Kolisi, the incumbent captain, must start with Whiteley making his comeback off the bench.
The Vermeulen gap can be plugged by players such as Jean-Luc du Preez (112kg and 194cm), his brother, Daniel (112kg and 196cm), or even last year’s Junior Springbok star, Juarno Augustus (111kg and 188cm) – all younger and more physical than Whiteley.
Follow Joshua on Twitter: @BalcombBrown
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