In a selection poser that is both simple and complex, Kurt-Lee Arendse should get the nod to replace the injured Cheslin Kolbe in the Springbok starting line-up for the Rugby Championship opener against the All Blacks in Nelspruit next Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
With Kolbe sidelined until September due to a broken jaw he suffered in the series-clinching 30-14 win over Wales in Cape Town, the Springbok brains trust are faced with a selection paradox.
They’ve already sprung a surprise by omitting Aphelele Fassi from the Rugby Championship squad. The Sharks outside back had an uninspired performance against the Dragons in Bloemfontein, but so did most of his teammates in the experimental Springbok outfit that fell to a historic defeat.
Tall and lanky, Fassi is what most coaches look for in the modern game in which the aerial battle under the ball is an ever-increasingly important part of a wing’s duties. With Fassi released, it’s now a three-horse race for the vacant green and gold No 14 jersey between Arendse, Jesse Kriel and Warrick Gelant.
Arendse’s name jumps off the page as the obvious choice to fill the void. A pint-sized predator with x-factor in his veins, turf-torching speed and footwork, aerial agility and the heart of a lion, the Bulls’ 1.8m, 76kg kid dynamite is a perfect like-for-like stand-in for 1.71m, 80kg Kolbe.
Both are fearless wizards who weaved their magic for the Blitzboks before transitioning to the 15-man game, with Kolbe following in the footsteps of the likes of Breyton Paulse and Brent Russell as little big men who helped pave the way for smaller speedsters to get a shot to prove their worth for the Springboks.
Chester Williams’ protégé did just that when he made his Springbok bow in the second Test against Wales, outshining Gelant and Fassi – who made up the back trio with him – with a giant-killing defensive display, which was supplemented by clinical attacking play that saw him rack up metres and threaten to slither out of confined spaces.
The 26-year-old’s done everything a coach could ask for, but will he be rewarded or will he be overlooked because of the one area he’s lacking in through no fault of his own? Experience is vital in Test rugby and never more so than when it comes to a clash against the All Blacks, so selecting the rookie could be regarded as a risk.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have always rated Kriel and with his wealth of experience, the 52-Test veteran may well be favoured as a tried-and-tested international. The 28-year-old is a supreme athlete and has been a solid servant of Springbok rugby since making his debut against Australia in 2015.
He’s a sledgehammer-like force in midfield but it’s his selflessness in the national set-up – fully committing himself to his back-up role to Lukhanyo Am, never once voicing frustration over a lack of game time and providing cover on the wing in situations just like this one – that’s earned him respect and equity.
It’s mainly because he’s the ultimate team man that he was handed the No 14 jersey for all three of the end-of-year Tests in 2021, an unpopular decision among most Springbok supporters, who prefer a more lethal and unpredictable game-changer on the wing.
If Kriel does crack the nod, his selection is sure to be met with a collective sigh from the South African fan base and the Canon Eagles ace will once again be under intense scrutiny from Joe Public.
Gelant is the dark horse. He’s an exceptionally gifted playmaker and offers a high-level kicking game, but it’s at fullback where those skills are best utilised. It’s a pity he failed to fire at No 15 against Wales in Bloemfontein after more than two years of hard work to earn his Springbok recall and it’s good to see he hasn’t been discarded.
Experience-wise, his comeback in the City of Roses took his Test tally up to 10. He started two of those on the wing, one on the left against Wales in 2017 and the other on the right in the World Cup pool clash against Canada in 2019, and scored a try on each of those occasions.
I rate him extremely highly and was thrilled that he got paid by Racing 92 after playing a starring role in the Stormers’ United Rugby Championship triumph, but I fear that very move to Paris will reduce him to a bag carrier in the Southern Hemisphere showpiece.
Rumours are rife that he’s ruled himself out of selection for the end-of-year tour to play for his new club instead and if that is the case, chances are he’s at the back of the line.
Back Arendse To Soar
All things considered, it’s not necessary to go the conservative route. Arendse stands head and shoulders above Kriel and Gelant in the speed department and his ability to beat defenders in a phone booth.
The fleet-footed firecracker would serve as a similar point of difference that Kolbe is in the otherwise predictable Springbok backline and as such, it would be a shame if he’s overlooked. It’s an opportune time for the Springbok brass to back Arendse to soar.
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