Good planning and recruitment have the Springboks well placed to fire against both the Wallabies and All Blacks over the next two weeks, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
A team comprising overseas stars, rookies and fringe players will front the Wallabies at Ellis Park on Saturday. The strongest available combination will start against the All Blacks in Wellington next week.
Rassie Erasmus plans to tick several boxes en route to the World Cup. By splitting the squads in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship, he will ensure that fringe players receive game time against Australia and Argentina and that the first-choice side improves its chances of beating the All Blacks in Wellington – and in Yokohama later this year.
If everything goes according to script, the 31-man squad that arrives in Japan at the end of August will not want for game time or confidence.
A lot has been said in the public space about the decision to pick an ‘A’ and ‘B’ side. Some have even suggested that the policy devalues the jersey as well as the very idea of Test rugby.
Tell that to the players who will play the Wallabies on Saturday.
Erasmus will name his 23-man squad later today. Expect to see a few names that scream international quality. Consider the experience, achievements and skills of these players and then decide whether a side including these assets is incapable of beating the Wallabies.
Marcell Coetzee, Rynhardt Elstadt, Cheslin Kolbe and Frans Steyn were among the top performers in Europe across the northern hemisphere season. Then there are the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Jesse Kriel and several others who have all been first choice at some point over the past three years, prior to a struggle with injuries.
There’s something different about the current group of players. They’ve enjoyed several weeks together in Johannesburg planning and preparing for a season that will climax at the World Cup. They appear to be united in a common purpose.
There’s been talk of physical intensity on the field and collaboration off it. There’s been no clear division between the A and B sides, and I’ve often noticed players who are competing for the same starting position – Damian de Allende and Steyn for example – having a laugh or a chat.
Kriel put this into perspective when he fronted the media on Tuesday. He wasn’t afraid to admit that Steyn and the other overseas recruits have pushed the South Africa-based players and the squad as a whole to a new level of competence.
‘There’s always a special vibe in the Springbok camp,’ Kriel said. ‘This time round, however, we have guys like Frans, Marcell and a few others back. Those guys bring a different dimension to the group.
‘It’s makes for a special team environment. Those guys have raised the standard on the training field. It’s got to the point where we get back to the hotel at the end of every day and tell ourselves that we’ve become better rugby players. That’s quite exciting.’
Bok backline coach Mzwandile Stick said that Steyn – who hasn’t played a Test since 2017 – has added a lot since joining the squad.
‘He’s just a special rugby player. He’s a utility back that can fit in at flyhalf, centre and fullback. He’s a natural footballer,’ said Stick.
‘We’re getting him back at an important time. He’s still looking as fresh as a 21-year-old. From my side as a backline coach, I’m thrilled to have him here. He brings a lot of experience to the table.’
SARugbymag.co.za understands that more than 40,000 tickets have been sold for Saturday’s Test. It’s not like Ellis Park will want for atmosphere.
The Wallabies can expect a traditional welcome from those in the stands. Going by what’s been said this week, they could also experience a traditional welcome on the pitch.
The big question this weekend is not one of quality or desire. It’s one of synergy.
We may well see a new-look back row featuring Elstadt and Coetzee, as well as two halfbacks who have never started a Test as a combination. Like Elstadt, Herschel Jantjies is expected to make his debut.
‘There’s been some continuity in the sense that we’ve been together for a few weeks,’ Kriel said in response to the question about the untried forward and backline combos.
‘We’ve been working on our conditioning and everybody has got a really good base. That won’t be a problem. Obviously what makes a difference is which team makes the least errors. We’ll be going out there with the aim to execute as well as we can.’
Many have made the point that the best available Bok team will already be in New Zealand preparing for an arguably bigger clash with the All Blacks. Will that matter to the players fronting the Wallabies half a world away?
‘There’s no one Test that you get yourself up for more than the other,’ said Kriel. ‘It’s an opportunity to represent your country.
‘We want to go out there and give our best. We will be just as determined and just as motivated as we’ll be when we play the All Blacks next week.’
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