Wed, 21 Aug 2019

A fading 'Flo'? Whoa, there ...

News24
24 Jul 2019, 04:10 GMT+10

Cape Town - Competition for Springbok loose-forward places is traditionally intense.

The time-honoured hallmark is little different, really, in 2019.

It is reflected in the names in that department currently in the 36-strong squad mix, with another World Cup now less than two months away.

Even with first-choice captain Siya Kolisi yet to be infused as he continues rehabilitation from a knee injury (on track, as he is expected to feature for WP in the Currie Cup shortly), the Bok party features the likes of Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Francois Louw, Marcell Coetzee, Kwagga Smith and Rynhardt Elstadt.

The first four of that half-dozen are already proven, top-notch Test competitors, with Vermeulen certainly embedded among the premier handful of No 8s in world rugby, Du Toit a revelation since his virtually lock, stock and barrel switch from the second row to blindside flank in 2018 - later crowned SA Rugby Player of the Year for it - and Louw and Coetzee sporting a generous 95 caps between them.

Whether this view is shared or not, I had just begun to wonder before the latest, particularly critical Test season whether someone like Louw, now a ripe old 34, would survive the creeping ravages of time to make it to RWC 2019 in Japan.

That was even while taking into account that the Rassie Erasmus regime has been roughly as partial thus far as predecessor Allister Coetzee was to favouring selection of the overseas-based, increasingly versatile loosie.

The Bath and former Stormers/WP player earned eight appearances in Erasmus' maiden season at the helm in 2018 - albeit that five were off the bench - while his tally of caps had also continued to swell quite nicely in the rocky "Toetie" era for two years ahead of it.

Yet it no secret that the national team have had fluctuating fortunes (to put it pretty kindly?) for much of the period subsequent to Heyneke Meyer guiding them to bronze-medal status at the last World Cup in 2015, which was also Louw's second sampling of the biggest tournament of them all.

In that often unstable time results-wise, the back-rower has generally been a steady rather than outright spectacular factor in Test colours - sometimes looking (a subjective statement, granted) as though the demands of week in, week out club activity on the heavy winter surfaces of Europe have taken a bit of a toll on his legs.

But then came last Saturday at Ellis Park, and his slightly surprising choice at No 8 - he remains significantly more familiar with the cares of flank, especially open-side - against Australia.

Louw was little short of a revelation, showing much of the desire and restless energy that had marked one of his most standout rugby performances on South African soil some years back ... when he so stirringly bossed the legendary Richie McCaw at the breakdown in a memorable 42-14 Stormers over the Crusaders at Newlands in 2010.

That was also the season when he was among the spearheads of a handsome 42-17 Bok triumph over France at the same venue.

Against the Wallabies in the Big Smoke, it was almost as if the white head-banded warrior rolled the clock back.

The veteran confirmed his pleasing freshness, considering that it is the English Premiership off-season, by staying on the park throughout and being arguably the most dynamic of all the Bok forwards.

This fourth start for him in the challenging berth of eighth-man, considering his still limited experience of the jersey, was almost undoubtedly also his best yet, as he marauded inspiringly, made a double-figure tally of tackles, and above all claimed a game-topping three significant steals (not bad when up against a team containing one Michael Hooper) despite not "playing to the ball" more specifically as he would in a Bok No 6 shirt.

Considering his known physical qualities as a carrier, too, helped by his solid 114kg frame, Louw looked every bit like the all-in-one sort of loose forward that coach Erasmus seems to be developing an increased liking for.

While his abilities on the side of the scrum will stay firmly in the Bok brains trust's minds over the looming weeks and months, featuring so prominently and assuredly at No 8 at Ellis Park may well have answered the far from unimportant question of who covers for the pedigreed Vermeulen in that berth, in the event of injury, at the World Cup.

It might have been considered a little problematic recently, what with the luckless season health-wise being experienced by Lions captain Warren Whiteley - the man who started in the position (and excelled) in last year's memorable upsetting of the All Blacks in Wellington, scene again of this weekend's latest bilateral encounter.

But with the 28-year-old, naturally combative Coetzee also able to switch quite seamlessly between flank and No 8 - he's had good exposure in the latter slot for Ulster - South Africa look increasingly well-staffed in backup should "Thor" suddenly succumb to a side-lining ...

*Follow our chief writer: @RobHouwing

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