The key to staying ahead of the curve in any field of competition is making changes before they are necessitated by failure.
No coach is more aware of this than those who select and coach successful sports teams. They are constantly reviewing performances and looking ahead.
For various reasons, there has been very little continuity-planning in South African rugby, from both a coach and player perspective. Instead, the Boks are asked to adjust to a completely new approach with every new coach, and with the incentive loaded towards winning now at all costs rather than a more sustainable, long-term view, the South African game has not grown at the same rate as some of the Boks’ fiercest rivals.
With this in mind, the AOR team debate which selection experiment is the most important for Rassie Erasmus to conduct when the Boks face England at Newlands on Saturday.
Tank Lanning – Play the Tank
The combination of a six-year contract as SARU Director of Rugby and a successful start as Bok coach has given Erasmus an opportunity to look beyond this week and plan for the future. However, he doesn’t need to achieve this through a complete overhaul of the team. Instead, Erasmus can integrate new players into an existing unit, giving them the benefit of team cohesion and confidence and, more importantly, continuity.
As such, I would not make more than four or five changes. And three of them would be up front. A start for Steven Kitshoff is obvious now that Beast Mtawarira is a centurion. Next to him, I would start Akker van der Merwe and new tighthead on the block, Thomas du Doit.
The latter has had his detractors, including this writer – given my distaste for props switching sides while playing at the highest level, instead of earning that right via the club system. But I was one of the first to suggest that this particular switch could work, and what better time to find out if it has?
Du Toit played off the bench in Bloemfontein last week, and his second scrum – the one that earned the Boks a penalty-try – was a sight to behold! It was, however, part of a fresh Bok front row against England’s tiring, starting combination.
Of concern was the last-minute capitulation to a seven-man England scrum. I’d be both nervous and excited if I was Erasmus. Having gone 2-0 up in the series against a clearly unsettled England side, I’d use Newlands to gauge which of the two emotions is the right one.
Zelím Nel – Start Notshe
Bongi Mbonambi has seized with both hands a rare Test opportunity, Steven Kitshoff has been a wrecking ball, rookie lock RG Snyman has looked like a Bok veteran and playmaking imports Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux have added zest to the attack.
But the MVP of South Africa’s series-victory against England is Duane Vermeulen.
In the absence of Malcolm Marx and Eben Etzebeth, Vermeulen has alone provided a cantankerous edge to the Bok pack. And, missing a proven fetcher, the 31-year-old has led the race for game-changing breakdown turnovers.
However, Vermeulen is set for a stint in Japan that will rule him out for at least part of the Rugby Championship and year-end tour to Europe.
It’s a major blow to Erasmus’ hopes of sustaining the wave of positive sentiment about the Boks. Wins win fans, and the odds of South Africa beating New Zealand for the first time in four years will only get longer when their most influential player is thousands of miles away.
While it’s possible Jean-Luc du Preez will be asked to step into the breach, despite getting yanked after an underwhelming performance at Ellis Park, Vermeulen’s withdrawal will amplify Sikhumbuzo Notshe’s role.
Unlike the Du Preez twins, Notshe will not jog onto the field with the tailwind of a strong Super Rugby campaign at his back – the Stormers greyhound has yet to make his mark in the competition.
Siya Kolisi is set to continue leading the Boks in the Rugby Championship and that means Notshe is more likely to start at No 8 than openside flank.
These are all reasons to start the three-cap loosie at Newlands with a view to him building confidence, form and experience, while Erasmus measures Notshe’s capacity for Test rugby before asking him to face the world champions.
You’ve heard what they’ve had to say, now where do you stand in the Big Debate?