Wales are first on the menu for the Springboks in 2022 and, with Duane Vermeulen absent, Jasper Wiese is on the clock to prove he can fill the No 8 jersey, writes ZELIM NEL.
Vermeulen ended the Vodacom United Rugby Championship on the surgeon’s table for a knee complaint and he will miss the three-Test series against visiting Wales in July, and quite possibly the 2022 Rugby Championship.
It’s a repeat of last season when the abrasive Bok veteran suffered an ankle injury in June and played no part in the British & Irish Lions series before making his comeback in September for three successive defeats in Australia.
Vermeulen will turn 36 on Sunday and while his highlight reel is loaded with exhibitions of peerless, brutal physicality, the Bok bazooka is running low on ammunition. His value in the team room and as a leader cannot be overstated but it is understood that Rassie Erasmus has determined Vermeulen has roughly five more Test outings in him.
In 2019, the Boks played five Tests in the build-up to the World Cup and a similar schedule would mean the world champions have 17 Tests, including the showdown against Wales at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, before they jet off to France next year.
Erasmus last year unveiled Wiese as Vermeulen’s understudy after the robust Leicester Tigers loosie was applauded for his contribution in the English Premiership. But Wiese was underwhelming in four Test starts and seven appearances off the wood against the Lions, during the Rugby Championship and on the end-of-year tour.
Fast forward to the eve of the Boks’ 2022 season and Wiese is once again expected to deputise for Vermeulen after starring in Leicester’s successful Premiership title run.
“Jasper Wiese was named the Player of the Final and one of Leicester’s stand-out players in a season that saw him start 16 of 19 Premiership matches and five of six Champions Cup matches,” wrote Mark Keohane in his weekly Sunday Times column.
“With veteran Duane Vermeulen absent from the Welsh series, it will be Wiese who the Bok coaching staff turn to as the starting No 8 option.”
Indeed, retaining Wiese makes sense for Erasmus, who would look foolish if he now shelved his chosen sledgehammer, but the onus is on Wiese to make the most of his second bite at the cherry because the upside of a waiting Evan Roos is both obvious and substantial.
Roos is a blend of Vermeulen and 2007 world champion Pierre Spies, mixing a helping of Vermeulen’s grit with a serving of Spies’ athleticism.
While playing a leading role in the Stormers reaching and winning the inaugural URC final, Roos earned multiple accolades during the campaign, most notably winning the Player of the Season award.
He alone would put the heat on Wiese to excel from the first whistle in Pretoria on Saturday, although Roos isn’t the only serious contender for a place in the Bok back row.
“South Africa, more than any rugby-playing nation, is blessed with loose forwards that as a collective have no equal in the game,” Keohane noted.
For some, including former Bok coach Nick Mallett, 30-Test veteran Marcell Coetzee is the obvious choice to take over from Vermeulen. Others would argue for Elrigh Louw, yet the standout Bulls grinder appears to be the perfect insurance policy for Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Instead, the Boks will protect the integrity of their pecking order and promote Wiese to start, and the first rookie to run out will be 35-year-old Stormers terrier Deon Fourie when he becomes the oldest player to debut for South Africa.
While there’s no denying the quality and volume of Fourie’s breath-taking output during the URC, Erasmus has already established Kwagga Smith as the fetcher replacement for captain Siya Kolisi, and Coetzee – who covers multiple positions – played most of his Test rugby at openside.
The plan for the first Test of the series is reportedly to double-bank the bench with Fourie and Smith, a ploy that may work wonders against Wales but which offers questionable long-term reward. It’s also a move that would squander the opportunity to blood Roos, who is one Wiese injury away from starting 12 of the next 17 Tests leading up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.