Makazole Mapimpi looks set to start against Argentina this Saturday while Damian Willemse is likely to make his Test debut from the bench, writes JON CARDINELLI in Durban.
Willie le Roux received treatment for what appeared to be a leg injury at the training session held at Kings Park on Tuesday afternoon. Rassie Erasmus may have experienced some concern – although he remained stone-faced, at the time – as the only specialist fullback in the Springbok squad was ushered to the sideline.
Fortunately for the Boks, Le Roux returned to action a few moments later. He resumed his role at fullback with what appeared to be the de facto starting side for this week’s Test. He completed the session without too much discomfort.
Erasmus made it clear on Monday that André Esterhuizen and Lukhanyo Am will start in the midfield against Argentina this Saturday. He also highlighted the need to blood Willemse – a promising 20-year-old talent in the mould of Frans Steyn and Dan Carter – sooner rather than later.
Le Roux, however, remains the favourite to start ahead of Willemse at No 15 against Argentina. That may change when the Wasps star returns to his English club later during the Rugby Championship, though.
Mapimpi has been running with the starting side since the first training session in Stellenbosch last week. In the absence of S’bu Nkosi, who has been ruled out for most of the Rugby Championship due to an ankle injury, Mapimpi will wear the No 14 jersey against Argentina – and in all likelihood against Australia and New Zealand later in the tournament.
Mapimpi made his Test debut against Wales in the USA earlier this year. He blew hot and cold while playing alongside two other players – Travis Ismaiel and Warrick Gelant – who were making their first starts in their preferred positions for the Boks.
Two more rookies in Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi started on the wings in the subsequent games against England. Le Roux was at No 15 in the first two Tests against England, and it was clear to see how the experience of the 44-cap veteran helped the young guns adapt to the rigours of international rugby.
If Le Roux had stayed on the sideline on Tuesday afternoon, however, Erasmus may have been faced with a serious problem.
Argentina have a new coach in Mario Ledesma, and by all accounts a more pragmatic game plan. The Pumas were seen practising their box-kicking and aerial contesting at Glenwood High School earlier this week. Clearly, they intend to implement a kick-chase strategy and target an inexperienced Bok back three at Kings Park on Saturday.
Le Roux will be tasked with defusing the majority of those bombs. It will be interesting to see how Erasmus manages his matchday squad in the second half, though.
Willemse has alternated with Le Roux at No 15 over the past two weeks. Erasmus has spoken about the Stormers flyhalf as an option at the back, but it remains to be seen if the Bok coach will field a completely inexperienced back three in the latter stages of a Test.
It may be more prudent to keep Le Roux, the most experienced back in the Boks’ squad, on the field during this period. Le Roux has played on the wing before, and by moving him to this position, Erasmus may continue to assist Dyantyi and – perhaps more significantly – ease Willemse’s transition into Test rugby.
The make-up of the Bok back row has been spoken about at length. Francois Louw, Siya Kolisi and Warren Whiteley have run together these past few days in Durban. If all goes to plan this Saturday, Erasmus may well give openside flank Marco van Staden a first run and move Louw to No 8 later in the game.
Malcolm Marx and Eben Etzebeth look set to start for the first time in 2018 after missing the June Tests through injury. Erasmus is likely to rest locks RG Snyman and Franco Mostert – along with Elton Jantjies, who he feels has endured a taxing Super Rugby season. Marvin Orie could get an opportunity from the bench as a result.
Lionel Mapoe alternated with Am at outside centre over the course of Tuesday’s training session. Erasmus could refrain from selecting a specialist flyhalf among the reserves – as he did ahead of the Test against England in Bloemfontein – and Willemse may be asked to cover 10 and 15.
While Argentina did their fair share of kick-chase training across town, the Boks practised fielding high balls and punishing poor kicks via the counter-attack.
It will be interesting to see how this contest pans out this Saturday, and whether an inexperienced Bok back three has what it takes to prevail.
Probable Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Makazole Mapimpi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Siya Kolisi (c), 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Lionel Mapoe, 23 Damian Willemse.
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images