Owen Slot’s dark declaration that the Springboks are fast becoming the West Indies of world rugby seemed to be justified. The UK journalist’s statement came in the wake of the Boks’ abysmal 2016 campaign and, as the following season revealed, his assessment was not unfounded – 11 wins in 25 Test matches between 2016 and 2017 highlighted a crumbling reputation.
But Rassie Erasmus’ decision to name a second-string team to take on Wales in Washington D.C. demonstrates his unique foresight, and hopefully the beginnings of a rugby revival.
Since Erasmus’ appointment as Bok director of rugby-cum-coach, there has been a notable upswing in optimism. Unlike many of his predecessors, the ever-organized Erasmus is renowned for meticulously mapping roads forward for ambitious rugby teams, as evidenced in the outstanding results he obtained at the helm of the Cheetahs, Stormers and, more recently, Munster.
The match against Wales is an official Test and, by selecting a second-stringer team made up exclusively of players based in South Africa, Erasmus has provided an opportunity for fringe players to catch his eye and earn a place in the ‘A team’. It’s a move that keeps them actively involved and therefore less likely to look abroad if they are not fielded against England this month.
The veterans who have featured prominently for the Boks over the past few seasons, such as Elton Jantjies, Jesse Kriel and skipper Pieter-Steph du Toit, will have been surprised that they were dispatched to the USA with the newbies.
Erasmus has effectively laid down a challenge to three incumbent Boks: “Prove why you should be starting against England.”
Du Toit, in particular, is an interesting case. Grandson of the legendary Piet “Spiere” du Toit, Pieter-Steph finds himself down the Bok pecking order less than two seasons after being named SA Rugby Player of the Year, despite injuries to Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager. The 25-year-old needs to respond to the challenge; a personal motivation that will have positive consequences for the Boks.
History will count for little when each of the teams make their first appearance at the RFK Stadium in America’s captial. Wales may have won three of the last four Tests played between the nations, but both sides are missing notable front-line players.
The Boks have been assembled on Super Rugby form but the team has a total of 159 Test caps. From uncapped rookies to snubbed veterans, every player will take to the field eager to prove a point. And Saturday’s wet-weather forecast only adds to the variables in this one-off Test.
Whatever the result, Erasmus will begin next week with the insight gained from giving a wide group of players a taste of the Bok culture. This will heighten their desire for more and create competition for the jersey that fuels the Boks on their journey back to the top of world rugby.
Follow Shaun on Twitter: @ShaunGoosie
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