During the Springboks training camp in May, head coach Heyneke Meyer said that picking the loose forwards for the Rugby World Cup was his biggest worry. Given the limitations of a 31-man squad he won’t be the only one currently pondering that selection puzzle.
The accepted view is that experience and established combinations are crucial for a successful tournament. At the end of last year, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said that barring injury he had 25 players already pencilled into his squad. It might be expected that most coaches will stick with the players they are familiar with, rather than take risks on unproven ‘bolters’.
Since 2012, Duane Vermeulen has started 29 of a possible 37 Tests in the back-row for South Africa, with Willem Alberts and Francois Louw both on 23 and Marcell Coetzee on 17. With the return of Pierre Spies (53 caps) and Schalk Burger (75) too, there isn’t much room for newcomers if Meyer opts to play it safe. However if he were to put stock in Super Rugby form this year – and the relevant rugby statistics – there are a number of players that have made an impression.
The three top tacklers so far this season are Warren Whiteley with 231, and Boom Prinsloo jointly sitting with Warwick Tecklenburg on 183. Below is a list of the top performers based on average number of tackles per game, from the sample of 49 players.
That high looking tackle average of Hurricanes breakaway Callum Gibbins can be explained by his consecutive games against the Rebels and Stormers, when he made a total of 54 tackles, missing just two. Absent from that list is Richie McCaw whose 2014 season average of 12.9 tackles per 80 minutes and 1.43 missed has dropped to 11.9 and 2.34 in 2015. With the usual warning about tackle completion stats not reflecting effectiveness remembered, the average from the sample of 49 players is 90%. McCaw’s rate of 83.7% puts him 46th in the group, while Sam Cane’s 97.7% average is first.
A view below at highest average runs per 80 minutes sees Prinsloo from the Cheetahs placed second again. The fact that Akira Ioane, Ardie Savea and Jaco Kriel average over four metres per carry and well above the 1.15 rate for defenders beaten is also notable. The selection of 16 other back-row players ahead of Kriel in the Springbok training camps this year was surprising considering he had been brought on tour in 2014 and because the uncapped Lions flanker does offer something different to his rivals.
Over the previous couple of seasons there has been talk from the South African teams about evolving their style. As an example, Gert Smal asked last year for more unpredictability from the Stormers in attack and wanted to put in place a system that allowed players to back themselves without fear of error holding them back. Shifting away from the safety net of structure to playing with more flair isn’t something that can be achieved quickly though and when decision-making is put under pressure there will be a tendency to revert back to old habits. A player possessing natural ability like Kriel is therefore of great value.
Kriel has beaten 44 defenders this season, the sixth highest amount in the competition and currently more than the likes of Nehe Milner-Skudder (42) and Ben Smith (39). That follows on from an excellent 2014 Currie Cup season when he rated top for clean breaks, defenders beaten and tries scored.
A common criticism of loose forwards with impressive attacking stats is that those numbers are achieved by neglecting work in the tight. However that isn’t the case with Kriel, who rates third for most turnovers won this season with 22, just behind distinguished scavengers David Pocock on 23 and leader Liam Gill on 26. In the previous Currie Cup season, he was second for that category.
Last year, Michael Hooper’s total of 22 turnovers won at a rate of 1.29 per 80 minutes would have meant inclusion on the list. In 2015 that rate has dropped to 0.61. That difference is also reflected at a team level – in 2014 only the Highlanders won more turnovers than the Waratahs (147 in 18 matches), whereas this season they rate last with 84 from their 15 games. Pocock’s 2.2 turnovers per game has been accomplished with a remarkably low penalty rate, in light of the average for this group of 49 players being 0.84. It is also the case that other players with very low penalty averages such as Willie Britz with 0.24 or Siya Kolisi on 0.3 also tend to be below average for turnovers won too – in this case 0.35 and 0.4 respectively.
If Super Rugby form was taken into account then a player that has made 412 tackles in two seasons, missing just 11 like Whiteley, or one that steals more ball than McCaw and beats more defenders than Ben Smith, like Kriel, would surely be heading to the World Cup. As Meyer continues to deliberate over his back-row selection, how to weight current form against experience may cause more headaches.