Rassie’s big call on Whiteley

Stephen Nell

For many Springbok supporters, Duane Vermeulen’s undoubted ability, coupled with his long and fruitful association with coach Rassie Erasmus, makes him a shoo-in at No 8 for the World Cup.

However, Erasmus by nature acts according to the sums made on cold, hard facts, which raises the question: should Vermeulen really be picked ahead of Warren Whiteley?

I started wrestling with this question following Whiteley’s return from injury to the Lions side for their unexpected 23-17 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton.

In the preceding two rounds, sans Whiteley, the Lions were beaten 42-5 by the Sharks at Ellis Park and 31-20 by the Brumbies in Canberra. Enter Whiteley and the Chiefs were scalped. Exit Whiteley and the Lions got smashed 36-10 by the Crusaders in Christchurch the following week.

Coincidence? I think not. It’s more likely a result of the Whiteley-effect.

The problem, of course, is that it’s not something that can be measured and necessarily applied elsewhere. The sheer presence of a player isn’t something that a stats app or indeed any measuring tool can explain. His teammates may tell you that they grow an extra arm and leg because he’s such an inspirational bloke, but it may also be environment-specific.

Then there’s Vermeulen – hardly someone we can accuse of lacking presence or inspirational qualities. When the going gets tough, Duane gets going and that is surely the kind of player you need for your team to be successful at the highest level.

There are a few conventional wisdoms about both players. It’s been said that Whiteley isn’t quite as physical as Vermeulen, is a looser player and his leadership qualities, rather than his ability as a player, are his major strength.

Vermeulen is the bloke that relishes the rough stuff – the quintessential tough-tackling South African forward and a man that has more than mastered the art of winning turnovers at the breakdown.

One way in which to accommodate both might be to shift Vermeulen to the blindside flank, but Erasmus would have to take leave of his senses to sacrifice Pieter-Steph du Toit so that he can sidestep having to decide between which of Vermeulen and Whiteley belongs in his starting line-up.

Such tricky selection posers are sometimes solved through twists of fate. The next torn ligament or groin muscle is always just around the corner. But as things stand, Erasmus is faced with a conundrum.

Whiteley, in spite of having been appointed captain in 2017, has through circumstances never been able to thrive in the Springbok environment. He was injured during the June series against France that year and didn’t play in the Rugby Championship or on the end-of-season tour.

He was a regular in Allister Coetzee’s first year at the helm as Bok coach in 2016, but Adriaan Strauss was the skipper and it was an annus horribilus for South Africa on the world stage if ever there was one.

Last year Whiteley started in six internationals, but in only one of those was Vermeulen in the match-day squad. That was in the 29-26 win over France, with Whiteley at No 8 and Vermeulen on the flank. Siya Kolisi, the captain, was on the other flank.

As long as he’s fit, Kolisi’s presence and captaincy will be cast in stone, which means that Vermeulen and Whiteley will, from a leadership perspective, be assessed on their ability to be support acts.

Neither will have another pop at World Cup glory beyond Japan 2019. Whiteley turns 32 three days before the Boks open their campaign against the All Blacks, while Vermeulen will be 33.

Vermeulen, perhaps, still offers the most compelling case for selection. While pace may no longer count among his strengths, he probably has the self-efficacy – the belief in his innate ability to achieve his goals – to excel at his last hurrah on the international stage. Importantly, he also has a fear factor and charisma that distinguishes him at the highest level.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the Lions’ Super Rugby campaign plays out – both with and without Whiteley. If they continue to defy the odds when he’s around, Erasmus may have to start thinking twice.

It’s a heck of a call to have to make in a World Cup year.

- Stephen Nell

Let's chat

  • Robert

    Agree Whitely offers a lot as a captain and a motivator for the lions.

    But if you want to know why the Lions beat the Chiefs, I believe the bigger driver was the actual Chiefs side that played on the day. The Lions beat a Chiefs team without Nathan Harris, Damian Mckenzie, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Solomon Alaimalo.

    The only Chiefs player of note (and only All Black that I could recall) was Anton Lienert-Brown. Given this, I don’t think one should use this victory as an argument to start Whitely at 8 for the Boks.

    • Brian Norbury

      Whiteley is streets ahead of Vermeulen as a Rugby player, faster better defender and brilliant attacker and sets up tries second to none. Whiteley, Jack Kriel and KYLE bRINK AS A COMBO WOULD WIN THE WORLD CUP FOR US. Vermeulen is too slow overweight can’t pass, off load, can’t sidestep all he has power close to the line. If you want to score tries then Whiteley is our boy and Jacko Kriel. The 2 best on the planet.

      • Herman Schroder?

        Amen to that Sir. Vermeulen was on the verge of being dumped by Toulouse when he returned to SA. Last year he was also quite iffy fot the Boks. People see him making the odd few yards and very few steals (imo) and elevate that to a superhero performance.

        Test matches are won these days with touches of brilliance at the right time. Warren has done this time and time again while everyone remembers that ONE pass by DV in the Wales test at the last WC. They remember it because he plays stampkar 99% of the time but the other teams out there no longer stand back for these guys. In fact the Boks are being bullied these days just ask Rassie.

        We need smart creative players and I agree your loose trio would be fantastic. Cheers.

  • John

    Surely there is place for both based on horses for courses thinking. One starts, the other is on the bench. You lose nothing in leadership while one is off the park because both are good leaders in there own right. In my view Siya is going to need that support in the WC when the going gets tough. I love Siya but I think some of the decisions he has made in this years SR have been poor and based on emotion.

  • Stephan

    According to me 6. Kolisi 7. Du Toit 8. Vermeulen is set in Stone. My scenario to use Whitely effectively in the last 20min to speed up the game will be this. According to me 4. Etzebeth and 5. Mostert is also set in stone, Etzebeth delivers a huge power game and usually his tank is empty come 50min in the game. Then move Du Toit to nr 4 and bring on Whitely for more mobility in the pack which allows you to carry an extra loosie on the bench in the form of a Marco van Staden to invest in the future or also a last hoorah for Marcel Coetzee

  • Wesley

    Perfect opportunity to rotate from the bench with the three between blindside and lock, and blindside and 8th. PSDT and Vermeulen boneshatters down the middle, Whiteley opening them up in the last 20. Could play expansive against the minnows with Whiteley and Vermeulen starting, more a composed approach against the big boys. Although the PSDT and Whiteley combo against NZ worked damned well last year so i wouldnt discount that combo in the opener on the 11th of Sept. Its a pretty nice problem to have for Rassie, as all three is firing well this year bar injury and the more senior guys Siya has around him, the better the team will do. I would then have in most games Marcell or Kriel, whoever Rassie goes with (please no Flo, proper fetcher) and Whiteley on the bench.

    • Herman Schroder?

      Wesley a few problems here. First of all if the intention is to WIN the WC then you need a captain with smarts and excellent leadership skills ie a player who can out think the best teams in the world. Kolisi does not possess that, fullstop. I know he’s a shoe-in based on transformation imperatives but he will not win you a WC. Not blaming the guy he is as much a victim of the system as anybody.

      PSDT is also not a classic loose forward who these days need to have far more skills and space appreciation in their armoury. . He is a poor handler of the ball and his passing skills and vision are also lacking. As a lock he is fantastic, prominent in the lineouts and with a tackle count second to none as well as taking the ball up. With him and Mostert as locks no attacker will get past them.

      Vermeulen is also a problem for me and I have covered that in an earlier post above.

      So if one is super critical our Rassie preferred loose trio of DV, PSDT and Kolisi are collectively and from a leadership point of view not going to make the grade imo. Just look what they will be up against at the WC, it’s frightening. Remember also Rassie basically failed last year and despite what some may think he tends to be too conservative and seems to be reliant on a ‘hard core’ of players who never really performed very well last year anyway.

      So the obvious question is who does one pick in this scenario ? If Rassie believes his ultra conservative game plan is appropriate for the WC then the question is moot. He will take his phalanx of overseas players, Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and a sprinkling of Lions no matter what but if last year was anything to go by we must not expect William Webb Ellis to return to these shores come November.

      However if Rassie chooses to surprise the ‘enemy’ then he must throw caution to the wind and pick the smartest 31 players be can find who can play a balanced attacking style of rugby not seen from the Boks since 2009 to really set the cat amongst the pigeons. Surprise is a very effective weapon in wartime, just ask Napolean. Dom krag will certainly not do it. Cheers.

  • Chris Mouton

    Vermeulen would be my starting 8, as he is solid overall. Whiteley’s frequent injuries make me wonder if we should really bank on him. He’s a great leader and all, but he needs game time. He needs to regain form. That being said, I’d still take him to the World Cup, but I’d take Dan du Preez along. Du Preez is the form 8 in South Africa in my opinion. Sure, he had a hiccup in Washington, but one cannot deny his talent. JL du Preez seems to be running into form as well. Call me biased, but the twins are needed for backup for PSdT and Vermeulen.

  • Redge

    If we want to beat the AB’s we will have to dominate up front and that’s why Vermeulen will start at 8. Whiteley is a wonderfull player but a walking injury. I agree with the du Preez “gorillas” as backup. First WC game against AB’s : Beast, Marx,Malherbe, Etsebeth, Snyman,Kolisi,PSDT,Vermeulen. After 50minutes replace Beast with Kitshoff. The AB’s will not dominate this pack.

  • boyo

    It is very tough because WW is to me by far the best captain in SA but he is also very injury prone. Also can he lead fully when there is a different captain? How does he lead the side without overstepping into Siya’s territory?

    For me you take WW to the WC in the skinstad roll as the captain for the lesser games or if Siya gets injured.

  • Martin

    Easy decision. Start psdt at 7. With vermeulen at 8. Kolisi at 6 and marcell coetzee on the bench i will take whiteley and kriel as the other back up loose forwards. Start with eben and mostert at lock with loodt on the bench. And RG as back up lock.
    Beast and malherbe to start with marx.
    Brits, kitshoff and Trevor on the bench. With bongi and coenie the other front row options.
    That brings the total to 17 forwards.

    Faf and pollard at 9 and 10. With reinach and jantjies on the bench.
    Dyianti and kolbe on the wings with willie at 15.
    Serfontein and kriel as the centres.
    Am as the back up On the bench.
    The rest of the back up: reinach, willemse esterhuizen and nkosi.

    Thats 14 backline players

    • Tobokani

      It’s difficult to argue with those selections, they are 100% spot on in my books with a few unlucky guys here and there, but with the way injuries are happening, the luck will even itself out with a few deserving selections unfortunately missing out due to untimely injuries as always happens. Unfortunately, the politics of the nation require 50% players of colour so Rassie will have to make some compromises.

  • Dean

    Vermeulen, PS and Kolisi. Whiteley, Marcel Coetzee and Jaco Kriel as backups. I’d start Lood (if fit) with Eben. RG on the bench. Mostert in the squad. The Bulls duo are special players and they have that little extra magic ie. offloading and breaking the line.

  • Dean

    The problem area is tighthead. Malherbe is not match fit. The Sharks pack haven’t done well this season and nobody really stands out. I think Nyakane has done well in the scrums, but is he any good in the loose? He goes down pretty easily. I like the look of Carlu Sadie, but this World Cup might be too soon.

  • Hendrik DuPlessis

    The Du Preez twins should be in the 23. They can both play 4,5,6,7 and 8. Same applies for PSDT and Duanne.

    I would drop Kholosi and pick a true out and out fetcher like Marcel Coetzee or Jaco Kriel. That would free up guys like Marx, Trevor, Beast, Bongi and Vermeulen to not have to do Kholosi’s fetching and stealing the whole 80 minutes

  • Barry

    It is funny how the South African Journalist fraternity are happy enough to allocate National positions based on preconceived or historical standings.

    It seems there is little or no regard for current on field performance!

    Whitely has hardly played this season, and lets be honest he is yet to have a good outing in the Green and Gold. That coupled with injury concerns would surely seem him out the running entirely. He is not being picked as a Captain!

    I would also suggest the Vermeulen supporters have a close look at his on field stats in 2019. They are at best pedestrian!

    By contrast we have a South African number 8 in our midst who holds the best performance stats for the number 8 slot in the entire competition has a personal tally of 35 points, yet is not even worthy of a mention!

    For Pete’s sake do you home work!

    • Jay

      I think the difference is that Duane seems to pitch up for big games. Wales game in the previous WC, the England tour of SA. There is also no doubt that he lifts the guys around him to play better. I do think that the du Preez twins have a future in SA rugby though, they have all the skills (perhaps just need a better coach)

      As for Whiteley, I can’t help but feel this is another John Smit/Bismarck scenario. Honestly I have to agree he is the best leader we have in SA rugby at the moment but he is getting injured almost every time he plays. A drastic move could be what if we made him the water boy? Still plenty of interaction with the players to rally them and calm them when needed.

      As for the Whiteley effect between the Chiefs and the Crusaders …really? …really? Makes me think the author has not been watching Super Rugby this year.

      • Barry

        Let me try and understand your post. You would happily exclude from the mix, a guy who is hitting it out the park week in and out in favour of a guy that had a “good game last World Cup”? Seriously.

        You say he picks up the players around him – made a total of 6 tackles against the Stormers of which two missed! That was a hard fought home derby??

        Considering players on reputation rather than form is a grave mistake!

        • Jay

          The post is reflecting on the original argument between Whiteley and Vermeulen.

          • Barry

            Yes and my post is a criticism of why the article which is restricted to only two players, neither of which is performing at present!

    • Dean

      A good outing? He played a vital role in the win in Wellington last year. JL was poor in the England series and Daniel was no better vs Wales 3rd string. If you going to drop Duane on stats from Super Rugby without taking into account the massive difference he made to the Bok team last year = suicide. Rassie would never do it, thank goodness for that.

      • Barry

        Another IMO critique of players without any substance!

        More than happy that say Marcel Coetzee get the starting berth. At least it’s based on form.

        If Vermeulen wants to be considered, he needs to pick up his game dramatically! This is the National side, not a buddy buddy club!

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