Rassie Erasmus will get a few more answers with regard to his best players and combinations when the Springboks tackle the All Blacks in Wellington, writes JON CARDINELLI.
In the buildup to the Test against the Wallabies, Erasmus went out of his way to clarify his selections for the first two games of the Rugby Championship.
The fringe players and overseas stars would front the Wallabies in Johannesburg. The ‘A’ team would face the All Blacks in Wellington.
Erasmus didn’t label the teams as such. Instead, he explained that a relatively small group of players had done enough in the past 18 months or so to be considered ‘first choice’ ahead of the World Cup.
There aren’t a lot of players in the current group of 36 who deserve to start ahead of their peers. Kwagga Smith may get a chance at No 6 on Saturday, but only because Siya Kolisi is unavailable due to injury.
Fullback Willie le Roux, halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard, No 8 Duane Vermeulen, flank Pieter-Steph du Toit and hooker Malcolm Marx. These names – along with that of a fresh and rehabilitated Kolisi – should already be on the team sheet for the World Cup opener against the All Blacks.
Erasmus had hinted at other preferences. Lukhanyo Am hasn’t played a lot of Test rugby, and hasn’t played a game for the Boks since he sustained an injury in the clash with the All Blacks in Wellington last September.
Despite his lack of international experience, however, Am is highly rated by the Bok coaches, even though there is another outstanding No 13 option in Jesse Kriel.
There is still time for the props, locks, centres and wingers to stake a claim for starting places at the World Cup. A strong performance against the All Blacks in Wellington would serve as a statement regarding their aptitude for the big occasion.
Steven Kitshoff has been one of the standout performers for the Boks in recent years, and Beast Mtawarira has been forced to raise his own game accordingly.
Frans Malherbe must be under pressure to produce a good all-round showing with the likes of Trevor Nyakane and Vincent Koch coming off good campaigns with the Vodacom Bulls and Saracens, respectively.
Eben Etzebeth showed a lot of hunger in the recent game against the Wallabies. The lineout unit wasn’t at its clinical best, but Lood de Jager put himself about at Ellis Park.
Should these two locks – who powered the Bok pack at the 2015 tournament – start at the 2019 World Cup? RG Snyman and Franco Mostert – the second-row pairing set to face the All Blacks this Saturday – should provide an answer on that front soon.
Snyman showed what he can offer in terms of his off-loading game in the recent Vodacom Super Rugby campaign, and could be an asset on attack this coming Saturday. Mostert has a big engine, and as seen by last year’s battles at the Cake Tin and Loftus Versfeld, the Boks need players who can operate at maximum intensity for close on 90 minutes.
Where the Boks are thin is at fullback. Warrick Gelant produced a mixed showing at No 15 last Saturday. It remains to be seen if Damian Willemse will recover from injury and regain form to give South Africa an alternative to Le Roux at the World Cup.
According to the players, Le Roux played a massive role in the attacking resurgence last season. Having a more experienced player at the back will help the wingers. While the Boks have speed and evasive ability in abundance, they don’t have many Test caps in the wing department.
Aphiwe Dyantyi’s injury-enforced absence robs them of a significant weapon. Dyantyi was a key player for the Boks in 2018, and made a big contribution in the game against the All Blacks in Wellington.
Cheslin Kolbe travelled with the ‘A’ team to New Zealand last week. This would suggest that he is being lined up to start, although one of the other wingers who fronted Australia – S’bu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi – will also feature in the run-on side.
Dyantyi finished 2018 as the first-choice No 11. The pecking order may change, however, if the wingers in the current side make a big impact in the game against New Zealand.
Several players who featured in the ‘B’ side last week bolstered their chances of selection in Japan. Mtawarira, Etzebeth, De Jager, Francois Louw, Frans Steyn, Kriel and Nkosi have all started regularly for the Boks at some stage of their respective careers, and it’s hard to think of these players as second-stringers regardless of the circumstances.
Erasmus has succeeded in building some depth ahead of the all-important global tournament. He’s not being diplomatic when he says that there are few players in the squad who are certain starters for the World Cup.
How the ‘A’ side goes against the All Blacks this Saturday, however, may shape Erasmus’ selections for the World Cup itself. Some will show why they deserve to remain in the starting mix, while others may give the coach a reason to consider other options.
Either way, Erasmus will receive answers.
Photo: Kim Ludbrook/EPA