The time is right to deploy Jean-Luc du Preez in a starting role against the All Blacks this Saturday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The Boks will head into this weekend’s decisive Rugby Championship encounter in Albany with really nothing to lose. The reality of the current rugby landscape means that even a competitive showing by the Springboks against the All Blacks will be seen as a sign of progress.
To put this clash into context, it’s almost exactly 12 months ago that the Boks suffered a 41-13 defeat against the All Blacks in Christchurch, while a few weeks later the Kiwis secured their biggest-ever win over the Springboks in South Africa when they ran out as 57-15 victors.
While the Boks have made significant progress over the past year, only an eternal optimist will truly believe that enough has changed in such a short space of time for them to have a real shot at causing a massive upset in New Zealand.
However, this lack of expectation should also ease the pressure on the Boks, while providing the opportunity for the visitors to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at their highly fancied hosts.
In order to stand a fighting chance though, I’d venture that they need to deliver something a little different to what we have seen over the first few weeks of the Rugby Championship.
Indeed, the Boks need to not only match the physicality, but also the mobility of the highly skillful All Blacks.
It certainly would not have escaped the Boks’ attention that just this past Saturday the All Blacks unearthed another ‘freak’ talent among their forwards, with resurgent lock Vaea Fifita producing a mesmerising performance of pace and power.
Despite weighing in at a hefty 113kg, while standing 1.96m tall, Fifita demonstrated the speed of a backline player when he rounded the Argentina defence on the outside and sprinted away for a crucial try in the second half.
The inclusion of Fifita has added a different dimension to the All Blacks’ back-row, with the 25-year-old offering the X-factor and another considerable ball-carrying threat, while he is also an option at the lineout.
The Boks need to counter this by unleashing their own back-row ‘beast’, with Du Preez having made a massive impact off the bench throughout this year.
If the Boks are to quell the All Blacks’ intensity and drive for physical ascendancy, they would do well to deploy Du Preez in a long-awaited starting role.
The talented 22-year-old boasts a massive work engine and real physicality, while he throws himself into contact with scant regard for his own physical well-being. Ironically, Du Preez possesses the sort of skill-set that is more commonly associated with mobile New Zealand loose forwards.
Consider for a moment that Du Preez came into the Rugby Championship having yet to miss a tackle in 2017, with the youngster completing 28 tackles from 28 against France – the most of any player.
He’s maintained that form in the Rugby Championship – making 17 tackles in three appearances off the bench – and the time has surely come for the Boks to consider adding some extra grunt to their starting loose trio.
While the Bok back row of Uzair Cassiem, Jaco Kriel and Siya Kolisi has been solid enough, there remain doubts over the balance and physical impact of this relatively lightweight trio.
Cassiem has performed manfully in the rather unfamiliar position of No 8, but in a horses for courses selection, Du Preez must be a strong contender to start in just his second Test after predominantly gaining international experience off the bench.
Du Preez does favour the blindside flank berth, but his one Test start did come at No 8, while only this past Saturday he came on for Cassiem at a time when the Boks’ momentum shifted during the final half-an-hour of play.
There is no doubt that Du Preez will be hungry for a starting opportunity – just think how Pieter-Steph du Toit grabbed his chance this past Saturday – and his elevation to the starting lineup would also serve to create healthy competition.
What the Boks will need to consider, though, is the value of their substitutes, with the All Blacks having once again shown this past weekend that their ability to up the intensity during the latter stages of a Test remains a class apart.
Yet the fact remains that the Boks need to fight fire with fire on Saturday, and Du Preez is the sort of player who can bring the heat.
Photo: Anne Laing