Allister Coetzee could be forgiven for starting to take Valium as his appointment with the feisty French looms ever nearer. Facing a crucial second year as Springbok coach, Coetzee is having to plan around injuries and overseas departures.
He was spared the axe after a 2016 campaign that had most Bok fans in need of post-traumatic counselling, and he has since been given added support in terms of more experienced assistants and training camps during Super Rugby.
Coetzee appears to have no limitation on the number of overseas-based players he is allowed to select, aside from a 30-cap threshold that kicks in on July 1. Some, such as former Bok coach Jake White, have encouraged him to make the most of that option.
One cannot blame desperate coaches for trying anything to save their skins, but bringing back a host of former stars would surely be a retrograde step in terms of the future of Springbok rugby.
Coetzee needs to produce a series-win from the three Tests against France in Pretoria, Durban and Johannesburg if he is to retain his job for the Rugby Championship, and that means the likes of Bryan Habana, Francois Hougaard, Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar and Morne and Francois Steyn will, in all likelihood, be winging their way back to South Africa in the coming weeks.
The need to recall these players from the northern hemisphere has also been heightened by injuries to players in SA. Coetzee’s two most-capped local flyhalves, and three leading candidates for inside centre are on the sidelines. Another midfield star has decided to pursue his career overseas as has a potential scrumhalf candidate, a position in which Coetzee has real problems.
In fact, if you run through the list of names of local players currently available for the backline, it makes gloomy reading. And thus, we return to the thorny issue of overseas players.
If one had to pick a backline only from the ranks of the Super Rugby franchises, it would be sorely lacking in the experience which is so important at Test level.
On current form, the uncapped Ross Cronje should probably be the starting scrumhalf, but Faf de Klerk, although suffering from the vagaries of form at the moment, must surely feature somewhere, especially since he played in 11 of the Springboks’ 12 Tests last year.
Cobus Reinach is the scrumhalf heading overseas and will be ineligible after July 1 because he only has 10 caps.
At flyhalf, Coetzee is faced with a repeat of last year’s problem when he was without Pat Lambie and Handre Pollard. The Bulls man is a non-starter for the French series, leaving the coach to gamble between a rusty Lambie or a frustrating Elton Jantjies, a man who looks top-class in Super Rugby but has been as hesitant as a vegan in a butchery at Test level.
The Springboks have a history of throwing Lambie into battle when in need of a rescue act, though the 26-year-old will probably have just three Super Rugby games under his belt by the time the French arrive.
While Curwin Bosch has burst onto the scene for the Sharks this season, it would be heaping too much pressure onto the 19-year-old’s shoulders to expect him to play flyhalf for a Bok team facing a crisis of confidence. But he might be considered at fullback since Jesse Kriel and Warrick Gelant have only produced glimpses of form for the Bulls.
Lwazi Mvovo is likely to be on the one wing and Lions finisher Courtnall Skosan certainly looks like someone who can be relied upon if called to make the step up. The local depth at wing is not great, with Ruan Combrinck out with a long-term injury and Seabelo Senatla and Sergeal Petersen battling to get on the field.
One does not like to dwell on the defensive frailties of players, but for all their brilliance with ball in hand, Jamba Ulengo, Travis Ismaiel, Dillyn Leyds and Cheslin Kolbe have all shown weaknesses in defence that Test opposition will definitely focus on.
Lionel Mapoe and Francois Venter have put their hands up for the outside centre berth, while Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Damian de Allende and Juan de Jongh, the last three players to wear the number 12 jersey for the Springboks, are all currently injured.
De Allende and De Jongh might return to action just before the June international window, but the confirmation last week that Jan Serfontein has given in to a move overseas is most untimely.
While Serfontein can still play against France, will Coetzee be willing to make an investment in a player who will be stranded on 29 Tests, if he plays all three internationals in June, and therefore won’t be eligible for selection for the Rugby Championship?
That leaves someone like the uncapped Burger Odendaal as the frontrunner for the inside centre position and, as tempting as it may be to pick a backline purely from Super Rugby players, their total number of caps might then amount to less than 50.
Not ideal for a must-win series.