Rassie Erasmus’ selections suggest that the Springboks are after more than a win in Salta this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks sit atop the Rugby Championship table with one round to play. They will know before kick-off in Salta on Saturday – following the Bledisloe Cup clash in Perth – exactly what they need to do in order to clinch their first title in 10 years.
Erasmus, however, clearly has one eye firmly focused on the World Cup in Japan.
The Bok coach experimented in the first round of the Rugby Championship with a side comprising fringe players and overseas stars. He backed a team packed with first-choice players in the most recent clash with the All Blacks in Wellington.
And now, with the Rugby Championship title in reach, Erasmus has favoured an interesting mix of players.
Siya Kolisi will make his comeback from injury in the Currie Cup this weekend. He may return to the Bok lineup for the friendly against Argentina in Pretoria next week.
Until then, Erasmus is intent on having another look at Kwagga Smith at No 6. The Lions loose forward has proved himself a fine option in contests where his running and passing strengths are amplified.
Tests in Argentina, however, demand more of a flanker in terms of physicality. If Smith can come through this challenge with a pass mark he may convince Erasmus that he deserves to travel to the World Cup.
Erasmus has retained the same back row that started against the All Blacks. It will be interesting to see where Francois Louw slots in when he is introduced from the bench.
Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth will have an equally important job to do at the collisions and breakdowns. The biggest talking point, of course, is the front row picked to target Argentina at the scrums.
Beast Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane began the season as second choice in their respective positions. A strong showing against Argentina in Salta this week, however, may force a rethink regarding the pecking order.
Nyakane, in particular, has been in great form at the set piece and around the park. He’s been groomed to play a swinger role at the World Cup – covering loosehead and tighthead – and yet he’s currently outperforming first-choice No 3 Frans Malherbe.
Erasmus has kept the same starting backline that featured against New Zealand two weeks ago. Damian de Allende has been backed once again to start at No 12 ahead of World Cup-winner Frans Steyn.
Perhaps Erasmus views this as the preferred dynamic going forward. Steyn can cover several backline positions from the bench and can be deployed at flyhalf, centre or fullback according to the situation in the second half.
On the other hand, it may have been more prudent to give Steyn, who hasn’t started a Test since 2012, a start against Argentina in what is a high-stakes match in the context of the Rugby Championship.
Erasmus could have selected his strongest available combination for this clash. Instead he has opted for a mix of first- and second-choice players.
While this may seem a risky strategy given the strength of the opposition and the Boks’ poor record abroad in recent years, Erasmus is determined to get some World Cup-related answers out of this truncated Rugby Championship campaign.
Whether the Boks win or lose this Saturday, Erasmus will gain some valuable information regarding certain players and their readiness for the World Cup challenge in Japan.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images