The Rugby Championship will reveal whether the Springboks have the strength in depth to be a force at the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Rassie Erasmus has been open and honest about his plan to split the squad for the upcoming matches against Australia and New Zealand.
Fringe players look set to feature against the Wallabies at Ellis Park next Saturday. The first-string side will travel to Wellington toward the end of next week to prepare for a more challenging clash with the All Blacks on 27 July.
It’s believed that Erasmus may employ a similar strategy for the subsequent Tests against Argentina. The ‘A’ side and ‘B’ side could play two games each before the final 31-man squad departs for World Cup at the end of August.
Erasmus has also suggested that the Boks will favour an A-team/B-team strategy over the course of the World Cup pool phase. The A side will surely face the All Blacks and Italy, while the B side may front Namibia and Canada.
Timing will play a part in the latter selections, as the Boks will face Italy and Canada within the space of four days.
As the schedule below indicates, only 10 weeks remain until the Boks’ first World Cup pool match against the All Blacks in Yokohama.
SA’S WEEKLY SCHEDULE LEADING UP TO WORLD CUP PLAYOFFS
|20 JULY||vs AUSTRALIA (JOHANNESBURG)|
|27 JULY||vs NEW ZEALAND (WELLINGTON)|
|3 AUGUST||NO TESTS|
|10 AUGUST||vs ARGENTINA (SALTA)|
|17 AUGUST||vs ARGENTINA (PRETORIA)|
|25 AUGUST||NO TESTS|
|31 AUGUST||NO TESTS (DEPART FOR JAPAN)|
|6 SEPTEMBER||vs JAPAN (SAITAMA)|
|14 SEPTEMBER||NO TESTS|
|21 SEPTEMBER||vs NEW ZEALAND (YOKOHAMA)|
|28 SEPTEMBER||vs NAMIBIA (TOYOTA CITY)|
|4 OCTOBER||vs ITALY (SHIZUOKA)|
|8 OCTOBER||vs CANADA (KOBE CITY)|
Barring any injuries or major loss of form, the side that fronts the All Blacks in Wellington on 27 July could well turn out for the World Cup fixture against New Zealand in Yokohama on 21 September.
At this stage, Erasmus is still looking for answers with regard to his best 23-man combination – particularly the make-up of the bench – and of course who else will add value to a 31-man squad.
It will be interesting to see how he goes about managing the team over the next four games. The first-choice side needs game time as a combination. Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard, for example, haven’t started together since the Test against France last November. They may only start two more games as a halfback combination before the team flies to Japan.
It begs the question of whether Erasmus will indeed change or experiment with his first-choice starting XV. Giving those players game time – and boosting their match fitness ahead of the World Cup – should be a priority.
At the same time, Erasmus needs to consider giving those next in line a fair opportunity to prove their worth.
Consider how much has changed with regard to personnel since 2018. Last year, one got the sense that Erasmus was set on De Klerk as his first-choice scrumhalf and that Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl would go to the World Cup as backup.
The latter two players, however, aren’t part of the current squad. Erasmus has picked Cobus Reinach of Northampton Saints and the uncapped Herschel Jantjies.
De Klerk should get a decent amount of game time with the first-choice side before the team departs for Japan. Reinach needs a start or two, though, having not played Test rugby since 2015.
If Jantjies is going to be a World Cup option, he too needs a fair amount of minutes leading up to the tournament.
Erasmus will face similar juggling acts in almost every department. Frans Steyn and Marcell Coetzee have a lot of Test experience between them, but neither player has played for the Boks recently and will need time to adjust to the present systems.
While the Bok team will be a called a B side more than once in the coming week, the group certainly won’t want for excellent individual players.
Four years ago, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager were favoured as the starting locks at the World Cup in England. Both have fallen down the pecking order due to injuries and will have a point to prove in the Rugby Championship.
The problem that the Boks may well have against Australia is a lack of synergy. None of the flyhlaves in the extended squad would have started alongside Reinach or Jantjies. We could see a similarly inexperienced back-row combination, too.
What’s important is that Erasmus gets the answers he’s after before the team leaves for Japan. While there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic about two wins in the next two weeks, the primary aim of this experiment should be the development of a group that can succeed at the World Cup.
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