S’bu Nkosi believes that the new-look Springbok back three will rise to the challenge of an England aerial assault at Ellis Park on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports from Johannesburg.
‘Bring on the high ball’. That appears to be the message from Rassie Erasmus to England ahead of the series opener at Ellis Park.
The Bok coach has selected two debutants on the wing, as well as a fullback who hasn’t played Test rugby since November 2016.
Aphiwe Dyantyi, Nkosi and Willie le Roux have the potential to rip the England defence to shreds. That said, it must be a concern that the three have never played together as a combination, and may be prone to a few mistakes on Saturday.
On Thursday, Eddie Jones acknowledged the threat of these attack-minded individuals. At the same time, the England coach admitted that the tactic of targeting this combination, and the uncapped players in particular, was always going to be on the cards.
‘They deserve to be in the side based on their Super Rugby form. They’re strong runners and there is some real firepower there,’ Jones said when addressing the media at England’s training base in Durban.
‘But like anyone, when you’re playing your first Test and the ball goes in the air, you’ve got to have your wits about you. We will look to test them at some stage on Saturday.’
Meanwhile, at a press conference in Johannesburg, Erasmus spoke of England’s kicking game and the importance of defusing those high bombs.
‘It’s going to be a challenge for them,’ the Bok coach said. ‘It’s going to be something they haven’t experienced before.
‘Makazole Mapimpi handled those Welsh high balls really well last week. That shows how much progress has been made. I promise you, four months ago, he wouldn’t have caught one of those.
‘The guys are improving. I guess the next step after securing the high ball is deciding what to do with it. We didn’t execute in that department against Wales.
‘Aphiwe is great under the high ball. S’bu is getting better at that with every training session. It’s going to be a good test for them this weekend.’
So what does Nkosi think of the coming aerial assault? The wing wore a calm and assured demeanour for much of the press conference staged at Monte Casino on Thursday afternoon.
‘We are very well prepared,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel any nerves as yet. I’m confident in what this side can do.
‘For a young winger, the biggest challenge is to find yourself in the right positions at the right times. I’ve worked hard on that aspect of my game. Coach Rassie feels that I’ve grown immensely in that respect.’
Nkosi has been training closely with Dyantyi and Le Roux over the past fortnight. The trio has formed a bond both on and off the field.
‘I’ve spent all my time with them over the past few weeks,’ Nkosi said. ‘We put an emphasis on analysing the opposition but I think it’s important to analyse your own teammates too.
‘You need to know things, like how they look to beat defenders. Then you can follow in support. You also need to know how they react in certain situations and how you can bring out the best in them. I’ve loved every second I’ve spent with them.’
Erasmus hopes that Le Roux, who represented the Boks in 41 Tests between 2013 and 2016, will help to organise the two youngsters at the back this Saturday.
‘Willie knows most of the English players, as he plays [for Wasps] in the Premiership week-in and week-out,’ the Bok coach said. ‘He’s pretty solid under the high ball. I hope he provides some direction and lends those two other guys a bit of calm.’
Nkosi was asked if the Test at Ellis Park would mark the realisation of a lifelong dream. His response was somewhat unexpected.
‘It’s the beginning of a dream come true. I don’t just want to play for the Springboks, I want to be excellent for the Springboks.
‘I’m very excited about this Saturday,’ he continued. ‘Ellis Park is very special to me because I played a lot of my junior rugby at the Lions. Ellis Park was always the be-all and end-all for me when I was growing up.
‘Beast Mtawarira is someone I’ve always looked up to. He’s always been great for the Boks, showing a tremendous amount of desire and passion when playing for the team.
‘That [desire] has been undying, and I think I can learn a lot from that. Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane have been great role models for me. I was lucky to get a chance at the Sharks. I’m not sure how many people get to play alongside their childhood heroes.’
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