Rassie Erasmus’ bold selections this week should serve as a timely reminder that long-serving ‘first-choice’ players cannot rest on their laurels, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Malcolm Marx dropped to the bench for the Boks’ must-win penultimate World Cup pool game? Yup, you better believe it. Some 12 months ago such a decision would have been virtually unthinkable, and yet the reaction to this move has been pretty muted since Tuesday’s team announcement.
Down to the subs bench go Franco Mostert and Steven Kitshoff, too. Since September 2018, the Boks’ flame-haired loosehead prop has started as many as 10 Tests, while lanky Mostert has been just as much a 1st XV regular (11 starts last year).
Erasmus has said their demotions to the bench – and the subsequent elevations of Bongi Mbonambi, Beast Mtawarira and Lood de Jager – are predominantly based on a horses-for-courses selection ahead of a clash with Italy that the Boks are expecting to be fiercely contested up front.
That’s all fine and well, but don’t underestimate the significance of these decisions.
For some time, Marx has been struggling to impose himself in quite the same manner that we have become so accustomed to seeing from the 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee.
Conversely, Mbonambi has shown some serious form – ditto for Mtawarira and De Jager – and they have been duly rewarded.
It should echo a warning of sorts for other big-name players who have yet to truly fire on all cylinders in 2019.
In this context, one could think of Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux and even Siya Kolisi (largely as a result of an expedited return from injury).
Over the course of this year’s Rugby Championship and indeed the start of the World Cup, Erasmus has expertly built serious depth in this Bok squad.
The Springboks won’t lose anything at all through the introduction of Mbonambi, Mtawarira and De Jager to the starting lineup this Friday.
Similarly, Vincent Koch could step in for Malherbe down the line. RG Snyman would seize an opportunity to start at No 4. What about Herschel Jantjies or Cobus Reinach at No 9?
Cheslin Kolbe could feasibly move to fullback, and open up a berth on the right wing for powerful S’bu Nkosi to return to the starting lineup.
One can’t imagine a scenario where Kolisi wouldn’t be an automatic selection at this World Cup, but we can’t forget that Francois Louw and Kwagga Smith are more than capable openside options.
Even before the tournament kicked off, Erasmus made it very clear that he would back in-form players to start during the knockout phase. Players will not be picked on reputation.
It’s high time influential performers such as Etzebeth, De Klerk and Le Roux send out a reminder as to just why they are deserving of a first-choice berth, and the clash with Italy provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.
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