Rassie Erasmus may load his Springbok back row with fetchers ahead of the fierce breakdown contest against Argentina, writes JON CARDINELLI in Durban.
Erasmus raised a few eyebrows last week when he said that Marco van Staden, Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw will start in the back row at some stage of the Rugby Championship. The three loose forwards, all of whom have specialised at openside flank at some stage of their respective careers, were seen running together at a training session at Belhar Rugby Club on Thursday.
Is this a sure sign that Van Staden, Kolisi and Louw will start against Argentina at Kings Park this Saturday? Probably not.
A number of combinations were used over the course of that open training session, which indicates that Erasmus has plenty of options, or that he wants to keep the opposition guessing. More will be revealed when the Boks train in Durban this week.
The return of Warren Whiteley – who missed the June Tests through injury – was meant to offset the loss of Duane Vermeulen. The latter was one of the Boks’ best players in the series victory against England, and in the aftermath Erasmus conceded that the team would miss the powerful No 8 in the Rugby Championship. Vermeulen’s contract with the Kubota Spears in Japan will preclude his involvement with the Boks until November.
Whiteley may yet wear the No 8 jersey in the coming months. What is interesting to note, however, is that Erasmus views Louw, who usually plays openside, as a strong No 8 option. Erasmus has also said that the Boks could benefit from playing Louw and Van Staden in the same back row.
The pack that starts against Argentina this week could differ a great deal – both in personnel and dynamic – to the one that fronted England in the three-Test series in June.
A starting lineup that includes hooker Malcolm Marx (another player who missed the June Tests), Van Staden and Louw should be extremely competitive at the breakdown. According to the detailed stats on foxsports.com.au, Marx led the recent Super Rugby tournament for forced penalties at the ruck and maul (19). Van Staden was third in this category and sixth overall for breakdown steals.
Argentina aren’t short on breakdown bandits either. Hooker Agustin Creevy ranked second for forced ruck and maul penalties in Super Rugby and third for pilfers. Jaguares captain Pablo Matera, who should start this Saturday, was a force at the rucks and collisions.
There is a case for fielding a more balanced back row, though. While Erasmus may see this game as an ideal opportunity to experiment with a Van Staden-Kolisi-Louw combination, he must understand the risks involved. Louw is not a recognised No 8 and Van Staden is yet to play a Test. Kolisi has played almost exclusively at openside flank for the past 18 months. It may take some time for such a combination to gel.
Pieter-Steph du Toit has gone well at blindside flank for the Boks in recent Tests. In 2017, Jean-Luc du Preez impressed when he was handed a starting opportunity at No 7. Erasmus has a fourth blindside option with the uncapped Cyle Brink – one of South Africa’s star performers in the recent Super Rugby tournament – in the squad.
Erasmus wants to build a back row around Kolisi, though. After starting all three games against England at No 6, the Bok captain looks set to focus on the No 7 position for the foreseeable future.
Eben Etzebeth is yet another key player who could make his return this week. The Bok lock hasn’t played any rugby since the Test against Wales last December due to a serious shoulder injury. The medical team has confirmed that Etzebeth is in the final stages of his rehabilitation, though, and we could see him back in the starting lineup this Saturday.
André Esterhuizen is the favourite to start at No 12. Erasmus said that the Sharks centre deserves another opportunity after featuring in two weather-afflicted matches in June.
Damian de Allende wasn’t included in the initial 35-man squad, but has been training with the Boks in Stellenbosch. Those are the only specialist No 12s at Erasmus’ disposal, with Jan Serfontein and Frans Steyn still in France.
Jesse Kriel started alongside Esterhuizen against Wales and in the third Test against England, but surely Erasmus needs to consider playing Esterhuizen alongside his Sharks midfield partner Lukhanyo Am sooner rather than later.
Handré Pollard should start at flyhalf and provide cover at inside centre. Going by what Erasmus has said and by how the team lined up in training this past week, 20-year-old Damian Willemse may well be deployed from the bench at fullback.
It will be interesting to see whether Erasmus opts for a traditional 5-3 split among the reserves and whether Whiteley makes the match-day squad. Sikhumbizo Notshe, who featured in the June Tests from the bench, is yet another loose forward option.
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