The Rugby Championship decider in Salta will provide the Springboks’ best side with a chance to build momentum ahead of the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Apart from one point and ultimately another win in New Zealand, Rassie Erasmus could not have asked for much more after the Tests against Australia and New Zealand.
The past two Rugby Championship games have produced a number of World Cup-related answers. They’ve also yielded seven log points and against all odds the Boks find themselves on the verge of their first big title in 10 years.
It’s possible for Erasmus to tick all of the relevant boxes in the lead-up to the global tournament in Japan. One would hope that he fields his best side against Argentina on 10 August. That approach would surely improve the Boks’ chances of winning the Rugby Championship and – in terms of the first-choice combination – building some momentum before the World Cup.
What many people have forgotten in their praise or criticism of the recent performance in Wellington is that that game effectively marked the Boks’ first Test of the season. The clash at the Cake Tin represented an opportunity for Erasmus’ ‘first-choice’ combination to make a statement.
How much will that combination differ when the Bok team is announced ahead of the World Cup pool clash in Yokohama on 21 September?
For starters, one would expect Siya Kolisi – fitness permitting – to resume his role as captain and starting openside flank. Aphiwe Dyantyi wasn’t considered for the first two matches due to a hamstring injury, but could come back into contention as Erasmus continues to ponder his back-three dynamic.
Who Erasmus opts to back at 6 and 11 in Salta remains to be seen. Indeed, while the matches in Johannesburg and Wellington provided answers in several departments, there still appears to be some uncertainty regarding the loose-forward group that will travel to Japan.
The past few weeks have shown that Frans Steyn and Cobus Reinach still have what it takes to contribute at this level and that Herschel Jantjies can be a match-winner. Whether Rynhardt Elstadt or Kwagga Smith have done enough to win a squad place is another story.
Francois Louw was outstanding at No 8 in the first game and made a big impact at openside flank when he was introduced off the bench in Wellington. Erasmus may be tempted to give Marcell Coetzee more game time over the next two matches against Argentina, and yet a back-row combination of Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen would give the Boks a lot of options in Salta.
Like Coetzee, Reinach may be limited to a supporting role in the coming weeks as Jantjies is granted more game time. However, if Erasmus is serious about preparing the team for the World Cup, as well as winning the Rugby Championship, then he must continue to start Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard in tandem.
De Klerk and Pollard first started together against England in Johannesburg last June. The first-choice scrumhalf and flyhalf have only started nine games as a combination since then.
Despite Willie le Roux’s erratic performance in Wellington, it wouldn’t surprise to see Erasmus favouring some continuity in selection in positions such as scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback. The back division that travels to Japan won’t have the same experience as past World Cup sides, and one would hope that the combination at the very least boasts some synergy.
The midfield has been chopped and changed almost on a weekly basis since the start of the 2016 season. Perhaps it’s time for Erasmus to settle on a centre combination – and to make a big call at No 12.
Damian de Allende was solid rather than spectacular in the recent draw in Wellington. The time has arrived, though, to see what Steyn can do in a starting role and to see what options a combination including Steyn and Lukanyo Am can offer.
The Boks will remain in New Zealand during the bye week. Erasmus and the coaches should look to address the areas of concern that were evident in the draw with the All Blacks.
The Boks kicked well and beat the All Blacks in the air. They did not, however, convert enough of their territory and scoring chances into points.
The set-piece performance was largely disappointing. The Bok scrum stabilised when Trevor Nyakane replaced Frans Malherbe in the second stanza. The lineout, however, wobbled throughout.
Erasmus faces another big call in the lead-up to the World Cup. Frans Malherbe may have been viewed as the top tighthead prop in South Africa last year, but has not shown the same form at the set piece and around the park in 2019.
Nyakane has been pushing hard through some impressive performances for the Vodacom Bulls, and more recently in the games against Australia and New Zealand. Vincent Koch has been the standout South African tighthead, though, with some influential showings for the hugely successful Saracens in Europe.
One would expect Erasmus to experiment further at some point over the next three weeks before settling on final squad of 31.
One would hope that he backs his preferred starting XV for at least one more game before the side departs for Japan, though, and that the side receives another chance to gel.
Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK