Dear mercurial South African rugby fan, please lay off Makazole Mapimpi!
I get it. He blundered badly by misreading a pass which led to Jack Goodhue’s try from a classic All Blacks counterattack – but other than that, what did he do wrong on Saturday?
Following up on last week’s assessment of the race for places in Rassie Erasmus’ World Cup squad, I thought that Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am and Cheslin Kolbe were magnificent in pocketing the fearsome New Zealand back three of Rieko Ioane, Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett.
It was one of the most impressive defensive efforts I have seen from an outside centre and his supporting wings in a long, long time. Am’s marshalling of the backline’s defensive patterns on first and second phase harked back to the days of the great Jaque Fourie, who in his prime had no equal in this facet of play.
The Boks have come a long way since 2018 and that hairy, incoming series against England when the Roses toyed with an inexperienced 13/11 and 13/14 combination. Settling on a starting 13 may be causing Rassie a few headaches – does he go with the defensively sound Am or the more explosive Jesse Kriel in Argentina and beyond? That’s a tough one.
Thankfully, it is patently clear is that pocket-rocket Cheslin Kolbe is certainly the number one right wing in the land. What was enjoyable about his performance was how it was almost mistake-free, his third in a row against New Zealand.
With number 14 sorted out, I still feel that injured Aphiwe Dyantyi is the best on the left, leaving Sbu Nkosi and Mapimpi to tussle for a spot on the bench. In the wider 31-man squad for Rugby World Cup 2019, I suspect Erasmus may favour a utility back for the trip to Japan, which will be advantageous for the versatile Kriel but problematic for specialist wingers such as Mapimpi or Nkosi.
Contextually, Willie Le Roux is a certain starter at fullback, while the electrifying Damian Willemse is back in South Africa, racing against time to recover from injury. This benefits Warrick Gelant greatly, but he is yet to turn the selectors’ heads fully, with the subtext of three out-and-out fullbacks unlikely to go to the World Cup and Willemse a nice option to add depth to the flyhalf stocks.
If you have followed the thread of my argument, then you now understand that a good wing and/or fullback are not going to make it on that plane to the Far East!
Thankfully, the scrumhalf matter is settled once and for all. Faf de Klerk was not exactly at the top of his game against the Kiwis, with an inconsistent kicking performance and unusually slow clearance speed from the rucks, but he is not expendable. His replacement, Hershel Jantjies, impressed once again in what must have been a heady week of international rugby for him, and it was only fitting that he scored the match-tying try. With Cobus Reinach in the mix, the perfect trio of 9s has suddenly emerged to book tickets for the global showpiece.
A workman-like Handre Pollard was in no position to dictate play in what was an absorbing arm-wrestle up front, but will be disappointed that he missed a crucial penalty which would have pushed the Boks out to a 9-0 lead, proving monumental in what turned out to be a low-scoring affair.
Considering how Elton Jantjies is his direct replacement, with Frans Steyn covering centre and flyhalf (and noting the point I made about Willemse earlier), the Boks are quite safe in this department.
Special mention must go to inside centre Damian de Allende, who silenced his critics with a strong performance that kept Sonny Bill Williams and Anton Liernert-Brown at bay. He carried very well, while also tackling tenaciously, and will likely bench Steyn as a result.
Among the forwards, the world-class Trevor Nyakane made a strong case for why he should be the starting tighthead prop. He steadied the scrum just as it was about to implode when Frans Malherbe (who must now be at risk of missing the flight) was hooked off.
Lizo Gqoboka is likely to get a run against Argentina to secure his spot in the squad. Pieter-Steph du Toit made a case for being considered the game’s preeminent blindside flank with a monstrous performance, underlined by him using the black arts to impede Vaea Fifita and then put off Aaron Smith in the lead up to Jantjies’ try.
The only asterisk among the loose forwards is what will happen now that openside Kwagga Smith – who was impressive in shading Matt Todd – must be reckoned with, considering that Marcel Coetzee and Francois Louw are part of the pecking order below injured captain Siya Kolisi.
The Boks can win the Rugby Championship – their first major trophy since 2009 – if they smash the pesky Los Pumas in Salta on the 10th of August, or by matching the All Blacks’ haul of log points against the Wallabies earlier that day, so you can bet on Rassie selecting a full-strength squad for that one.
One week later, with the pressure off he will probably show his hand by giving the World Cup dirt-trackers a go in the one-off Test against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld. Unless injuries change the plan, it’s unlikely he will introduce new players this late in proceedings.
Ninety percent of the squad is set in stone, and good luck to him and the selection panel in deciding on the remaining percent – the mercurial South African rugby fan is hard to please!
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