Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Has
anyone stopped to properly consider the link between the Lions’ reduced
efficiency in Super Rugby this year and the absence for large tracts of
skilful, tearaway loose forwards Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel?

And perhaps
even more importantly, what impact the situation will have on short- to
medium-term Test plans by new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus?

The whippet-like
Kriel, of course, hasn’t played at all for the franchise this year, having
suffered a serious shoulder injury last season.

The Lions
released a statement just over a fortnight ago, confirming that he would play
no part in the remainder of their roster in the competition and had been signed
by English Premiership club Gloucester for the next northern-hemisphere season – he will meet up anew with his former Lions head coach Johan Ackermann.

Whiteley, at
least, is still a firm contractual part of the Johannesburg franchise’s mix,
although fans of the slightly flagging outfit – now boasting only a 50 percent
win record, although they remain top of the SA conference – are understandably
anxious about his slow recovery from a knee problem.

Latest
reports suggest the preferred Bok captain (when fit) during the later phase of
Allister Coetzee’s two-year green-and-gold tenure may be able to see service
for the Lions again just before the June recess, giving him a chance of some
activity during the three-Test home series against England.

During the
Lions’ charge to successive Super Rugby finals, in 2016 and 2017, both Whiteley
(doubling as a genuinely inspirational, dynamic leader) and Kriel were pivotal parts
of their fabric – especially in an attacking sense.

Both possess
the sort of deft-footedness and athleticism to be elusive even from seemingly
congested situations in general play, and wonderful linking players with the
backline as well.

Kriel is
especially nippy – an elegant marauder right out of the Rob Louw school.

It is not as
though the Lions have lacked speed or flair in the duo’s absence: former SA
Sevens stalwart Kwagga Smith has had some sublime moments, and emerging tyro
Hacjivah Dayimani is no slouch for X-factor, either.

But both
Smith, having changed rugby modes, and Dayimani, in his first full season of
Super Rugby activity, are understandably just not fully in tune yet with the finer
points of the Lions’ largely successful, high-tempo template of the last two or
three years, and occasionally lost some effectiveness or prominence as a
result.

With a bit
of luck, Whiteley will be back on board — and increasingly back to his
sharpest — for both the Lions and Springboks pretty soon.

Meanwhile Kriel
could yet be a candidate for the Rugby Championship (given the relaxation of
the Bok restrictions on overseas players) if he gets some encouraging comeback
game-time beneath his belt for Gloucester ahead of it.

He was one
of few Boks to demonstrate true X-factor during a fleeting period in Allister
Coetzee’s tenure last year when the national side showed welcome verve, mostly
in a period involving some (convincingly) victorious Tests against France and Argentina.

Without
either of Whiteley and Kriel able to be in his most immediate thoughts,
successor Erasmus is arguably saddled with a situation where he still sports
plenty of brawny options for loose forward berths during June, but a relative
dearth of silky “steppers”, if you like.

That was a strong
hallmark he demonstrated in no small measure during his own 36-cap
international career; he was a good balancer in a Bok loose trio when someone
like the earthy Andre Venter was the blindside flanker and Erasmus would more
comfortably patrol the open side.

As things
stand, the chances look increasingly likely that Erasmus will be forced into
putting out a trio comprising mostly direct, notably physical specimens.

Unless he
has a surprise speed merchant in mind for installation somewhere in the
alliance, smart money suggests Siya Kolisi will start at No 6 for the first
home Test against England, with either of big units Jean-Luc du Preez or
Pieter-Steph du Toit (also an increasingly attractive proposition for the
second row, though) on the blindside and maybe Du Preez’s twin brother Dan, cut
from a near-identical cloth, as eighth-man.

Should
Erasmus be partial to veteran, proven scrapper Duane Vermeulen – just finished
with his Toulon employment – then he is another who will naturally come
strongly into the picture to fill the likely Whiteley void at eight, but also offer
significantly contrasting qualities.

The coach is
smart enough to know that three “piledrivers” means certain sacrifices in
finesse and genuine game-breaking possibilities.

And will he
want that?

Perhaps not

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter:
@RobHouwing

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