Split Bok squads or bust

Split Bok squads or bust

The decision to field a second-string side against Wales and to cotton-wool the first-choice stars ahead of the first Test against England is the right one, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Rassie Erasmus recently described the exhibition match against Wales in Washington DC as a money-making exercise, one that may alleviate the financial pressure on the union and keep a few more players in South Africa.

That comment may have been made in his capacity as director of rugby, someone who has a mandate to improve the state of the South African game in the long term. As the new Bok coach, however, he will know that, as far as first games go, an away match staged on the other side of the world a week before a series-opener against England is far from ideal.

Erasmus will have to gamble one way or another this June. Take a second-string squad to the USA and risk losing the first Test of your tenure. Alternatively, take a stronger side to the USA, bank the win, and then attempt to manage the players’ travel fatigue ahead of a crucial Test against a team ranked No 3 in the world.

The choice may be made easier by the fact that Wales could be without a host of players due to injuries and European club commitments. The Bok ‘B’ team could well come out of that clash with a victory.

Possible Springbok team to face Wales in Washington DC on 2 June*

15. Andries Coetzee
14. Travis Ismaiel
13. Jesse Kriel
12. Damian de Allende
11. Aphiwe Dyantyi
10. Elton Jantjies
9. Nic Groom
8. Nizaam Carr
7. Franco Mostert
6. Roelof Smit
5. Jason Jenkins
4. RG Snyman
3. Trevor Nyakane
2. Adriaan Strauss (c)
1. Lizo Gqoboka
*Sharks players unlikely to feature and overseas-based players unavailable. All players listed above – bar Adriaan Strauss and Nic Groom – attended the recent alignment camps.

Erasmus was reluctant to label the teams ‘A’ or ‘B’ when he fronted the media recently. However, when one considers the selection parameters, one cannot help but conclude that the first-choice match 23 will be placed in cotton-wool ahead of the first Test against England.

Erasmus has been in talks with a host of overseas-based players. This past week, he name-checked Frans Steyn, Bismarck du Plessis, Faf de Klerk, Juan de Jongh, Pat Lambie, Vincent Koch and Duane Vermeulen. He confirmed that these players – if selected – would only be considered for the matches against England, as the game against Wales falls outside the World Rugby-sanctioned window.

Erasmus added that players in the Sharks squad are unlikely to be considered for the Test against Wales. The Sharks will play against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on Friday, 25 May. This means that they will only return to South Africa the following Sunday and miss the start of the Boks’ preparations for the clash against the Dragons.

It would be a big ask for those players to travel from Argentina to South Africa and subsequently from South Africa to the USA in the space of a week (the Bok side selected for the Test against Wales will depart for Washington DC the following Wednesday).

Erasmus has also made it clear that he wants to help the South African franchises as much as he can. Having been a franchise coach himself, he may understand why the Sharks – who are ranked last in the South African conference at this stage and can’t afford to lose another game – may be reluctant to rest their best players for that crucial visit to Argentina.

Erasmus fronted the media at the conclusion of the third and final alignment camp this past Wednesday. The new Bok coach has met with some 60 South Africa-based players over the past few months.

Several players who weren’t part of that group – Adriaan Strauss and Ivan van Zyl of the Bulls, and Madosh Tambwe of the Lions – have impressed the Bok coach in the Super Rugby competition and may be in the mix come June. Injuries to frontline players may force Erasmus to cast the net even wider.

When one considers that ‘alignment’ group as a whole and the parameters of selection – i.e. who will and won’t be available for the game against Wales – one gets an idea of whom Erasmus will turn to across those two weeks.

Possible Bok team to face England in Johannesburg on 9 June*
15. Warrick Gelant
14. Ruan Combrinck
13. Lukhanyo Am
12. Frans Steyn
11. Sbu Nkosi
10. Handré Pollard
9. Faf de Klerk
8. Warren Whiteley (c)**
7. Duane Vermeulen
6. Siya Kolisi
5. Lood de Jager
4. Eben Etzebeth**
3. Wilco Louw
2. Malcolm Marx
1. Tendai Mtawarira
*All local and overseas-based players available. All South Africa-based players listed above attended the recent alignment camps

Take the flyhalf position, for example. If Handré Pollard is first-choice at this stage, and if France-based Lambie will only be available in the official Test window, it would make sense for both to feature in the match 23 for the first Test against England.

Elton Jantjies would benefit from an extended run against Wales in Washington DC, and would certainly lend some experience to that lineup. The 19-year-old Damian Willemse, who is certainly one for the future, will be away on Junior Boks duty at the World Rugby U20 Championship.

Strauss could have a key role to play in that match against Wales. The former Bok captain has found some form with the Bulls in recent months, and is set to come out of international retirement this June. It wouldn’t surprise to see Strauss leading the Boks in Washington DC.

The long-term candidates for the Bok captaincy – Warren Whiteley, Vermeulen, Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi – should be part of the main squad that remains in South Africa to prepare for the more challenging and important clashes against England. It wouldn’t make much sense to send Whiteley and Etzebeth – assuming they overcome their latest injuries –  or Kolisi to the USA. Vermeulen, based at Toulon, will only link up with the squad ahead of the England series.

How will Erasmus manage his scrumhalves? As the Bok coach told me in a recent interview for SA Rugby magazine, there is no one standout at this point.

He has mentioned Faf de Klerk, and the return of Nic Groom to South Africa cannot be a coincidence. Embrose Papier, Louis Schreuder and Cameron Wright were all invited to the recent alignment camps, and evidently, Ivan van Zyl is also on Erasmus’ radar.

Will Frans Steyn make his long-awaited return to the No 12 jersey? Jan Serfontein, the incumbent in 2017, is unlikely to play this June due to a thigh ailment. If Steyn still has a desire to represent the Boks, he should be backed to start at inside centre in the series against England.

Steyn’s return will strengthen the midfield group as a whole and should allow Erasmus to select a more experienced centre combination against Wales. Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel travelled to the 2015 World Cup, and have impressed in recent Super Rugby matches. A first-choice pairing of Steyn and Lukhanyo Am in the Tests against England is an exciting prospect, though.

South Africa will not want for good options in the front and second rows, and one would hope that veteran hooker Bismarck du Plessis is part of the match 23 that faces England. The selection of the back three may prove trickier, as some of the outstanding candidates have relatively little experience at Super Rugby and Test levels.

Expect a few wings to make their debuts across the four Tests this June. Aphiwe Dyantyi could make an impact against Wales, while Sbu Nkosi, who is recognised as a strong aerial and defensive player, may be preferred against an England side that is known for its combative approach and pinpoint kicking game.

Erasmus described the selection process over these two weeks as a juggling act. Indeed, careful management will be required to ensure that the Boks perform in the games staged in Washington DC and Johannesburg this June.

Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/Backpagepix

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Jon Cardinelli