Jasper Wiese did enough in his second international outing, as South Africa ‘A’ downed the British & Irish Lions 17-13, to show that he is the natural successor to Duane Vermeulen as an out and out eighth-man for the Springboks three tests against the Lions, writes Oliver Keohane.
Pick a player when he is in form. That form may last, it may not, but whether Jasper Wiese will remain the front runner for the Springbok number 8 jersey post the series does not change the fact that he is the obvious selection to start against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.
It is highly unlikely that a talent like Wiese will fall out out of Springbok favour, but my point is that rugby should be about favouring form primarily. If New Zealand refused to pick every winger of their last 20 years due to lack of experience and the knowledge that the player probably had only 3-5 years of test rugby in him (think Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo, the Gear brothers, Rene Ranger, Sitiveni Sivivatu etc.), they wouldn’t have been nearly as dominant out wide.
What they have got right always is picking a player “in-season” but being ready to let go of him if he loses form. Julian Savea raced to 46 test tries in 54 matches and then never played for the All Blacks again. While it’s a great pity for New Zealand rugby that Savea’s international career lasted five seasons only, he contributed 0.85 tries per game for the All Blacks over that time. I’m sure they don’t regret picking him.
And Jacques and Rassie will not regret picking Jasper Wiese to replace the Duane Vermeulen-sized hole left in the Springboks back row. Wiese has been outstanding for Leicester, weekly bullying much of the opposition in the English Premiership who now make up the British & Irish Lions squad. In 14 Premiership appearances (correct as of the 8th of June 2021), he accumulated 701 running metres, beat 54 defenders and made 8 line-breaks while scoring three tries. Defensively, he completed 117 tackles at a 90% success rate. He is 110 kilograms and 6ft3 and he perfectly fits the mould of a like-for-like Vermeulen replacement.
And the Springboks need a replacement of that nature to play the type of rugby they want to play. Wiese in the SA ‘A’ match reminded me so much of Vermeulen in the security he offered under the high ball, especially at kickoff, and his constant physical presence. He always went forward in the carry, made a few big momentum-shifting hits, and until injury in the dying minutes he was never far from the action. With Wiese front and centre of the physical effort of the back row, Marco Van Staden was allowed the freedom to focus on ruck time and defence while Pieter-Steph Du Toit could roam in wider channels and be more indirect in his attack.
A big and strong traditional Springbok number 8 has always been so important because of how he has allowed the loose trio to function as a unit, and given the backline players physical security in fielding the ball deep. While opinions seemed to differ post the match, Wiese appeared to me to just be comfortable at that level of rugby.
While the Boks have two huge talents in Jean-Luc and Dan Du Preez, who offer similar physicality to Wiese and arguably silkier skills, their impact would be felt most off the bench. Both RG Snyman and Lood De Jager are unlikely to feature, so if there is an injury at lock then either Pieter-Steph Du Toit would have to fill in – in which case one of the Du Preez brothers would offer a similar set of skills in his replacement off the flank – or one of the Du Preez brothers would be utilised as a lock in order to preserve Pieter-Steph’s presence on the side of the scrum. With this in mind, selection again points to picking an outright number eight, who would bring to the table the same qualities as Vermeulen and uphold the winning formula of the Springbok pack.
Wiese is the man for the tour, and I feel that with his selection made certain at number 8, the rest of the starting selections and replacements fall into place a lot easier
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