Experimental selections and strategies should make for an intriguing opening weekend of the Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
The Springboks, Wallabies, Argentina and All Blacks will begin their World Cup journey this Saturday. The Rugby Championship will be used to prepare the respective teams for the tournament that matters most.
Should the integrity of the former be sacrificed for the sake of the latter? It’s a difficult question that has been asked again and again in the buildup to this year’s Sanzaar showpiece.
Rassie Erasmus and Michael Cheika believe that every Test matters. This week, both coaches moved to clarify how much the 80 minutes at Ellis Park will matter – at least in the context of the World Cup.
Erasmus put it best when he was peppered with a series of related questions at a media conference on Wednesday.
Preparation for the World Cup is well under way – and not just in South Africa but in the northern hemisphere where the likes of England have already convened for a World Cup training camp.
Why shouldn’t the southern hemisphere sides switch to World Cup mode? After all, the Boks will play their first pool game against the All Blacks in two months’ time.
Cheika has selected stars like Kurtley Beale and Will Genia on the bench for the Ellis Park clash. A host of Crusaders players has remained in New Zealand while the All Blacks have travelled to Argentina for the opening round of the Rugby Championship.
Like Cheika and Steve Hansen, Erasmus needs answers to selection and gameplan-related questions sooner rather than later. These Rugby Championship matches, as well as the subsequent friendly against Argentina, will provide him with the chance to refine existing strategies and possibly introduce something new.
While it’s still early days for this team, it certainly appears to be a group on the rise. There’s also reason to believe that they may slay one or two giants at the World Cup. They proved themselves capable when they felled the All Blacks in Wellington last year.
By contrast, the Wallabies are under pressure to fire now and at the World Cup in Japan.
On Thursday, Cheika went out of his way to paint a picture of a happy and ambitious Wallabies squad. It wasn’t long, though, before he admitted that his tenure as Wallabies coach will hinge on whether the team wins the World Cup or not.
Australian sport has seen a lot of controversy of late. Last year, Australia cricket captain Steve Smith and two other players were suspended for ball-tampering – an incident that prompted a significant change to the team’s leadership and culture.
More recently, Israel Folau made headlines for all the wrong reasons with his anti-gay statements on social media. Folau’s contract was eventually terminated, but Rugby Australia’s handling of the ordeal was widely criticised.
Simply put, Australian rugby and indeed Australian sport need a good news story. A win against the Boks at Ellis Park – for just the second time in history – would mark a good start.
While expectations of World Cup success should be tempered, there’s something to be said for the Boks’ approach to the international season. Every player and coach in the Bok camp appears to be on the same page.
This weekend marks the first step of the World Cup journey. Erasmus will see what Rynhardt Elstadt and indeed an interesting mix of loose forwards can offer.
He will find out how Herschel Jantjies reacts when he is put under pressure. By the end of the game, he will know how close Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager are to attaining full match fitness.
Later in the game, Frans Steyn, Cobus Reinach and Marcell Coetzee will be deployed from the bench to show what they can offer.
What would a coach in Erasmus or Cheika’s position prefer at this point of the four-year cycle: a conservative display that yields an ugly win and prompts more questions or an experimental approach that leads to a defeat but also to some valuable answers?
It’s possible for the Boks to tick both boxes this Saturday. In the context of the World Cup, however, answers are more important than results at this stage.