Kwagga Smith’s selection at openside flank poses some questions about the Springboks’ back-row approach against the All Blacks in Wellington, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The All Blacks are overwhelming favourites to win the opening Pool B clash in Yokohama on 21 September. That could change, however, if the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday to claim their second-successive win in New Zealand.
Rassie Erasmus has selected and managed his squad over the past two weeks with the coming game – as well as the more important clash in Japan – in mind. There are few surprises in the team picked to front the All Blacks at the Cake Tin and yet it certainly appears capable of challenging the No 1 side on home soil.
The side that fronted the Wallabies last week comprised players returning from injury and overseas, as well as a few who have been on the fringe for some time. The side selected to face the All Blacks features a number of first-choice players, yet there are a few noticeable absences which suggest the Boks aren’t completely at full strength.
The Boks beat the Wallabies 35-17 at Ellis Park last Saturday. Afterwards, Frans Steyn said that something should be read into the fact that the Boks can beat Australia and claim a try-scoring bonus-point win without 13 frontline players. The bottom line is that the Boks are building some depth and are on the right track.
Perhaps the Springboks will make another big statement at the Cake Tin. They will, however, be without their first-choice openside flank and captain Siya Kolisi as well as star winger Aphiwe Dyantyi – who have both remained in South Africa to recover from their respective injuries.
Erasmus’ selections suggest that the Boks may vary their approach a lot more in Wellington. Last week, the Bok coach favoured a back row including bruisers such as Rynhardt Elstadt, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Francois Louw. This Saturday, Du Toit and Duane Vermeulen will supply the necessary grunt at the gainline while Smith should some inject some speed into the attack.
Smith hasn’t played for the Boks since making his debut against Wales in the USA last year. Erasmus experimented with a number of different loose forwards and combinations, and as the World Cup drew nearer, one got the feeling that Smith would not receive another chance to impress.
Yet here we are, with Smith set to start in the biggest game ahead of the World Cup.
Would Erasmus have given Smith a chance if so many other loose forwards were injured? Kolisi, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Warren Whiteley are all sidelined at present. It appears as if the Du Preez twins – who also picked up niggles towards the end of the Vodacom Super Rugby season – and Marco van Staden have fallen down the pecking order.
Smith will be under pressure to perform. Louw had an outstanding game against Australia last week, and has proved that he can contribute at No 6 and 8. Marcell Coetzee made a big impact when he came off the bench and is another player who could cover all three back-row positions at the World Cup.
Kolisi, Du Toit and Vermeulen should travel to Japan as the first-choice back-row combination. The big question between now and late August is who else is going to make the loose-forward cut.
Erasmus got some answers last week in this respect. He should get a few more when the Boks front the All Blacks.
In the backs, Erasmus has favoured Makazole Mapimpi ahead of Sbu Nkosi despite the latter’s superior skills under the high ball. Perhaps Erasmus is banking on Mapimpi’s speed and game-breaking ability in what could be a high-tempo contest.
Damian de Allende will also be under pressure to fire. Steyn made a successful comeback against Australia last week, and will be pushing for the No 12 jersey in the lead-up to the World Cup.
The bench features an interesting mix of players. Louw is better known for his physicality and breakdown nous than his ability to inject speed into the game in the final quarter. Erasmus may have been better served starting Louw at 6 and playing Smith off the bench.
Then again, Erasmus may feel that Smith deserves a decent opportunity to show what he can do.
Du Toit put in a big shift against Australia, and may not go the distance this Saturday after arriving late in New Zealand. Erasmus may have plans to move Vermeulen to blindside flank and Smith or Louw to No 8 towards the end of the game.
RG Snyman could have a key role to play off the bench with his powerful carries and timely offloads. Expect Snyman to get a fair amount of game time, as Eben Etzebeth is another who featured prominently against Australia last week.
Before last week, Erasmus may have viewed Cobus Reinach as the preferred understudy to Faf de Klerk in Wellington. After a stellar debut at Ellis Park, however, Herschel Jantjies deserves a chance to face the All Blacks at the Cake Tin.
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