While the majority of the Springbok World Cup squad has already been selected, injuries and form may force Rassie Erasmus’ hand in the lead-up to the tournament in Japan. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Erasmus and his staff recently completed a Springbok alignment camp with 10 Stormers players in Cape Town. The Bok coach will travel to Gauteng this weekend to watch the Vodacom Bulls battle the Sharks in the big Super Rugby derby at Loftus Versfeld. Thereafter, he will meet with a select group of 20 players involved in that clash and outline his plans for the Test season and the World Cup itself.
At this stage, Erasmus has a good idea of who will be travelling to Japan in September as part of the 31-man World Cup squad. On Tuesday, he made it clear to the media that while the majority of the group is settled, there is still time for a few players to stake a claim for a place.
‘I’d say about 80% of the squad is settled,’ Erasmus said. ‘It’s tough to say something like that, though, when you know that there will be injuries and other guys may be asked to step up. As we’ve seen in the past, where a guy like Frans Steyn broke down the door ahead of the 2007 tournament, there will always be space for someone special to force their way into the mix.
‘In terms of positions of concern … Faf de Klerk and Embrose Papier are the front-runners as the scrumhalves at this stage, but we know that you need three scrumhalves for that squad. Ivan van Zyl, Ross Cronjé, Louis Schreuder, Cobus Reinach … they will all be competing for a place and that group is not quite settled yet. In terms of other positions, we will see how injuries influence selection.’
Bulls lock Lood de Jager has been ruled out for the rest of the Vodacom Super Rugby season due to a shoulder injury. While Erasmus hopes that the Boks’ first-choice No 5 will recover in time to feature, he has to put contingency plans in place.
Indeed, it would be interesting to see what the Bok squad looks like in five months’ time and how much it will differ to the one initially envisioned by the selectors.
Erasmus will address a wider group of players in the coming weeks to explain his plans for the season. The coach feels that it’s important for each individual, and indeed for the respective franchise coaches, to know what is required in the lead-up to the World Cup.
‘We want to get it into the players’ heads what they can expect when they travel to Japan. We’ve spoken about our plans and all the tactical requirements. It’s important that we get that ball rolling sooner rather than later.
‘We’ve opted to stick with the players who were with us at the Boks last season [for the camps]. So we had 10 players involved in the recent camp with the Stormers. We will meet with about 20 players after the Bulls and Sharks game in Pretoria. That camp will take place on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.’
Player management will also be monitored closely over the next few months.
‘We’ve made sure that all the players who are on the [World Cup] radar have a specific plan with regard to managing their workload,’ said Erasmus. ‘All the franchises have bought into our plan, and we will be monitoring each player carefully, not just in terms of their game time, but also with regard to other things like their speed, tactical work-ons and so on.
‘Lood and Warren Whiteley are out with injuries, but that’s not because they’ve been overplayed. I think that we will only be able to tell who has been overplayed by round seven or so.’
Transformation remains a priority. In 2014, SA Rugby implemented its strategic transformation plan across the levels to ensure that the Bok team is 50% black by 2019.
Erasmus explained that the side is on track to realise that goal, albeit over the course of the season.
‘We didn’t hit our target of 45% last year and that was disappointing. But I am glad that we had a lot of success stories if you think about what Aphiwe Dyantyi achieved and so on. We gave a lot of new players of colour opportunities, and we know that there is a bigger pool to draw on going into the World Cup.
‘I have to make it clear that the target is 50% across the course of the season. It’s 50% on average. We might be over that when we select the World Cup squad, and we might be under it. What’s important is that we average 50% over the whole Test season.
‘I believe that we will. I’ve been encouraged already about what I’ve seen in the 2018 Currie Cup, and even when looking at the make-up of teams like the Sharks [in the present Super Rugby tournament]. Again, there might be a few challenges if there are a lot of injuries. ‘
As was the case in 2018, the Boks will need to strike the right balance in terms of their selections. Erasmus maintains that the best side will be on show from the outset.
Five Tests remain before the World Cup. The Boks will take part in a three-Test Rugby Championship and then tackle Argentina and Japan in a couple of friendlies.
‘We’d love to win the Rugby Championship. We will have to be at our best in the first game against Australia and when we face the All Blacks in Wellington. That will set the tone for the World Cup, which is the main goal. You should see our best possible side in those games.
‘By the time the match against Japan arrives, we will have our World Cup squad together. That will be a dress rehearsal for the first pool game against the All Blacks [on 21 September in Yokohama].’
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