Having reported on Sikhumbuzo Notshe’s career for a number of years I have developed a soft spot for the Stormers loose forward and, on a personal level, I’m absolutely delighted that he is getting a chance to start a Test match.
That being said, Notshe will run on for his fifth Test cap with much to prove in the No 8 jersey. He’s a very skilful player, but critics have doubted his ability to physically step up to the demands of the game at the highest level.
Earlier this week, John Dobson and Chris van Zyl, respectively coach and captain of Western Province’s Currie Cup team, hit that notion for a six when quizzed about Notshe’s inclusion in the Bok starting line-up.
Dobson noted the maturity that has crept into Notshe’s game. He’s become a grafter on top of being an athletic ball-carrying loose forward, Dobson says. Van Zyl lauded Notshe’s breakdown skills, which he reckons improved through a stint with the national sevens team.
The door was opened by Warren Whiteley’s injury which, based on the Lions captain’s performance in the victory over the All Blacks in Wellington, is quite a blow.
It must be said that Whiteley had seldom impressed as a Test player and, prior to the remarkable events in New Zealand, I had come to think of him as an impressive leader at no more than Super Rugby level. Like many Bok fans I also believe Notshe has to prove that he’s got both the guile and the muscle to be able to have an extended career at international level, and he will do well to emulate Whiteley’s presence in the lineouts.
Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has been similarly bold in offering Cheslin Kolbe a start for Saturday’s showdown with the Wallabies in Port Elizabeth. We all know what Kolbe is capable of doing with the ball in hand, but much of a wing’s time is spent on defence. His try in Wellington was from an intercept, which doesn’t suddenly make him a proven international winger.
Kolbe has struggled against New Zealand opponents in Super Rugby and there are questions about his ability to step up as a Test player. Perhaps that’s falling into the trap of judging a player on what he cannot do rather than on what he can do.
Erasmus may be going horses for courses – if Kolbe is going to be exposed physically, it is less likely to be against the Wallabies than the All Blacks.
Once again, respect to the Bok coach for what he’s doing. Erasmus has judged the players on their strengths and is giving them a fair crack.
It’s got boldness written all over it and, importantly, he’s also proved that he isn’t selecting black players to keep politicians happy and hold tackle bags. He has done more for transformation than any Bok coach before him. But come kick-off time there’s no place for public relations and no place to hide.
On the surface, the Boks making their run-on debuts on Saturday do not fit the mould of the traditional South African player. When available, the Boks’ first-choice No 8 is the bruising Duane Vermeulen, while it’s only injury to Sbu Nkosi that’s keeping the big Sharks wing out of the Bok team.
While we should appreciate and celebrate the likes of Notshe and Kolbe for their own strengths, in the coming weeks they will have to look into the eye of the storm and prove beyond doubt that they are tough enough.