History will be made on Thursday when Rassie Erasmus names Siya Kolisi to lead a Springbok starting side that includes at least six black African players.
Times are a-changing, at least as far as the make-up of the Bok team is concerned.
The franchises and unions have struggled to meet SA Rugby’s transformation targets in recent years. It’s for this reason that the national team may battle to field a side that is 45% black on a regular basis in 2018.
That said, Erasmus will have the opportunity to field a side that is more representative and competitive in the first Test against England at Ellis Park. The Bok coach will name his team at a press conference in Johannesburg at 11:30am.
Erasmus has already confirmed that Kolisi will lead the side for the duration of the three-match series. Warren Whiteley and Eben Etzebeth have been ruled out due to injuries, while the availability of another strong candidate in Duane Vermeulen will only be clarified at the end of June.
On Thursday, the team will be announced and Kolisi will have the ‘c’ next to his name for the first time. The flanker will become the first black African to lead the Boks in a Test when he runs out of the Ellis Park tunnel at 5pm on Saturday.
Going by Erasmus’ recent comments, and by the way the Boks have lined up at the training sessions held at St Stithians this week, there shouldn’t be too many surprises.
On Wednesday afternoon, SA Rugby confirmed that Montpellier-based Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn sustained injuries in the recent Top 14 final. Du Plessis and Steyn were not available – according to Erasmus – for the first Test. The Boks’ chances of winning the series have been significantly dented with news that the experienced hooker and centre won’t be considered for the second and third games.
Injured hooker Malcolm Marx – who was named SA Rugby Player of the Year following his impressive feats across the 2017 season – is unlikely to return to the squad until the Rugby Championship. The Boks will have to make do at hooker with Bongi Mbonambi, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Akker van der Merwe for the duration of the series.
When one considers the injuries and the recent travel to the USA, one begins to see how this is the strongest side Erasmus could’ve picked for the first Test.
There’s bound to be some debate when the team is announced later on Thursday, but when one uses experience and form as the basis for selection, one begins to see that this is the best that Erasmus can do at present.
The selection of Kolisi as the first black Test captain is a big deal. The selection of six black African players in the starting XV should also be viewed as a sign of progress as far as transformation is concerned.
Lukhanyo Am has been the form No 13 in South Africa for the past two seasons. He would have played more than a single Test – off the bench last November – if not for injury setbacks.
Jesse Kriel has been in fine attacking form this season, but Am has shown consistently that he has a bit more to offer in terms of tactical kicking and defence. Both can add value in the long term, but Am deserves a chance to start this weekend.
It shouldn’t surprise anybody to see Erasmus selecting a new back three. The Boks have been crying out for a set of players that has the speed as well as the tactical nous to excel at Test level.
S’bu Nkosi has been pushing for an opportunity since the early stages of 2017, and would have got a chance on the end-of-year tour – as then-Bok coach Allister Coetzee said – if not for a serious injury sustained in the Currie Cup playoffs.
Aphiwe Dyantyi has certainly troubled defences in this year’s Super Rugby tournament. Nkosi and Dyantyi may be targeted by England’s tactical kickers this Saturday, but then Erasmus doesn’t have many other options with Ruan Combrinck woefully out of form.
Some have questioned Kolisi’s form and whether he deserves his starting position, let alone the captaincy. And yet one would be hard-pressed to make an argument for any other South African openside starting ahead of Kolisi at this stage.
Kolisi’s experience sets him above other contenders like Kwagga Smith while Roelof Smit and Jaco Kriel are currently injured. His long playing relationship with Vermeulen (previously at the Stormers and most recently at the Boks) should boost South Africa as they strive for synergy.
Beast Mtawarira has been in great form for the Sharks, and needs only two more caps to become a Test centurion. Mbonambi is expected to line up at No 2 (with Marx and Du Plessis unavailable) and Trevor Nyakane at No 3.
Nyakane has made improvements to his game since 2017, but few would have forgotten the impact made by Wilco Louw at the scrum during the latter stages of last season. Despite his young age, Louw may have been a better bet to start and take on England loosehead Mako Vunipola at the set piece. Louw may yet start if Nyakane is ruled out with a rib injury.
Will this team beat England in the first Test? I have my doubts, and they are linked to the experience of England’s key players as well as the team’s pragmatic approach.
Can Erasmus select a stronger Bok side than the one listed below? It’s hard to see how, given the list of injuries and problems with availability. It’s for this reason that fans and critics will have no good cause to blame transformation targets if the Boks lose to England this Saturday.
Erasmus is set to name a new-look side devoid of established combinations. Nkosi, Dyantyi and RG Snyman are set to make their Test debuts, while Am will get his first Test start.
Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk are likely to return after two years in the international wilderness. There will be a few problems with regards to synergy, and a more settled England side may be favourites to come out of the clash on top.
There is talent and potential in the current group. It may be some time yet, though, before the Boks – playing under a new coach – truly fire as a unit.
Springboks (probable) – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 S’bu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane/Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw/Frans Malherbe, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Warrick Gelant.
Photo: Anne Laing