The question on who should fill the number eight position for the Springboks in a potential Rugby World Cup quarterfinal, is far from a simple one and will need some serious consideration by Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber.
In a pre-tournament article, I selected my 33-player Springbok Rugby World Cup squad, and one of the toughest positions to make final calls was among the loose forwards.
These were my picks: Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, Deon Fourie, Jean-Luc du Preez and Evan Roos.
The last two players didn’t make the final cut, which is a bit unfortunate, as Du Preez and Roos could have brought an extra hard edge and finesse to the loose trio.
But the major omission there was Jasper Wiese, who has been the preferred Bok No.8 over the last few years for Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber.
Big Wiese call
I explained that my decision to leave out Wiese was about his handling issues, as he is prone to knocking the ball on, while he also lacks the classy touches with ball-in-hand that a No 8 is supposed to possess.
That is why it was refreshing to see veteran Vermeulen finding his mojo once more in the build-up to the World Cup this year, as he himself had thought he might miss out on the final squad.
The 37-year-old was outstanding in some of the games leading up to France 2023, so it was a total surprise when Wiese was reinstated at No.8 for the World Cup opener against Scotland, with Vermeulen on the bench.
The latter had done more than enough to retain the starting berth at the back of the scrum, but had to be content with a 20-minute cameo off the bench.
After starting and playing the full 80 minutes against Romania, Vermeulen was then strangely left out of the match-23 against Ireland, and instead sat in the coaches’ box, with Kwagga Smith and Marco van Staden the back-up loosies on the bench.
Wiese was again preferred at No.8 for last Sunday’s encounter against Tonga, with Vermeulen shifting to blindside flank in place of the rested Du Toit.
Wiese was his usual busy self, charging into the Tongans and bringing a high work-rate, while Vermeulen looked a bit out of touch at No.7 – a position he hasn’t played in regularly since his early Stormers days more than a decade ago.
Over to Rassie and Jacques
But now Erasmus and Nienaber need to make the big call for the likely quarter-final against France next Sunday – Wiese or Vermeulen at No.8?
Considering the form he was in going into the World Cup, I would have gone for Vermeulen. He was back to his old self – making strong carries, big hits in defence, contesting the breakdowns, managing the defence at close quarters and getting the Bok driving maul to operate smoothly.
He hasn’t been at his best in France, but surely he can conjure up the magic for one last hurrah over the next few weeks?
The other obvious option at the back of the scrum is Smith, who has all the pace in the world for a loose forward and is a tigerish presence at the breakdowns. But does he have the necessary physical attributes to be effective against a mighty French pack?
That is why I want you to indulge me in another option at No 8: Kolisi. Yes, he hasn’t played there regularly in his senior professional career, although he spent most of his school tenure there.
And having Kolisi at No.8 could open up a spot for Smith or Van Staden at openside flank, considering Deon Fourie is now the official hooker back-up to Bongi Mbonambi.
I would prefer a Kolisi-Du-Toit-Vermeulen loose trio in the quarter-final, but if there are concerns about Vermeulen from the Bok coaches, then I wouldn’t mind a Smith-Du Toit-Kolisi combination …