It’s hard to fault Rassie Erasmus on any of the 40 names included in his first Springbok squad of 2019. It’s not too bloated, gives chances to overseas veterans, and the only genuine prospects kept out of contention by injuries are the likes of Damian Willemse and Warren Whiteley, and obviously captain Siya Kolisi.
But the Rugby Championship is where the hard part starts, with coach Rassie Erasmus facing the difficult exercise of beginning to trim that squad down to the required 31 for the 2019 World Cup in September, with the ultimate goal of bringing Bill back to South Africa.
Square pegs will have to fit into round holes, compromises will need to be made between specialists and versatile players, and of course, experience will have to balance out.
Erasmus is probably settled on a starting XV and eight reserves, but that leaves eight spots to fight for. Excluding the Boks’ first Test against Wales last year, Erasmus has only used 42 players, of which only 31 remain (excluding injured players). This means there are at least nine players in the current squad that haven’t spent sufficient time in the Bok camp to be up to speed with the systems and structures, and they therefore need to be tested in the upcoming Rugby Championship.
The list includes Dillyn Leyds, Frans Steyn, Herschel Jantjies, Cobus Reinach, Marcell Coetzee, Rynhardt Elstadt, Kwagga Smith, Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane.
The Boks can’t play Jantjies and Reinach in the same team, and it wouldn’t make much sense to pick Coetzee, Smith and Elstadt as a loose-trio. Consequently, if Erasmus wants to evaluate each player to the fullest, he’s going to have to rotate during the three-Test competition.
According to reports, Eben Etzebeth and Duanne Vermeulen will both serve as captains in Kolisi’s absence during the Rugby Championship, and this shows that rotation is exactly what Rassie is planning.
Along with the seven newbies, other players like Marco van Staden (2 caps under Erasmus), Lood de Jager (2), Marvin Orie (2), Vincent Koch (4), Makazole Mapimpi (3), Schalk Brits (1) and Warrick Gelant (3) will also feel they haven’t had an extended opportunity to prove their worth, though Brits is probably safe as one of only three hookers in the squad.
Gelant and Leyds will have to deputise at fullback for a woefully out-of-form Willie le Roux, De Jager and Orie need to usurp superior players, while Elstadt is now also a versatile option, and Mapimpi probably needs to beat out Sharks’ teammate Sbu Nkosi.
Damian de Allende and Andre Esterhuizen have hardly set the world alight at 12, and this puts the maverick Frans Steyn right back into the equation, with Gqoboka and Nyakane in a shootout against Thomas du Toit for that spot as the swing prop.
With this year’s Rugby Championship shortened to a single-round format, one must wonder how much the psychological edge of beating New Zealand again before the World Cup will factor into Rassie’s thinking.
Winning is a habit, and sending first-choice Boks across the Indian Ocean one week early suggests the Boks are going all out for the win at the Cake Tin on 27 July – a risky move considering the implications of a loss. If the Kiwis trounce the Boks it may undo the confidence gained from last year’s victory in Wellington, the first against the All Blacks in seven years.
Luckily for the Boks, New Zealand also has some positions (like fullback, centre and blindside flank) that still need to be settled. But it’s unlikely Steve Hansen will send out an experimental team to host South Africa at the end of the month, given that the rematch will take place at the Yokohama Stadium with the World Cup at stake.
Any plans to experiment will be reserved for clashes with the Wallabies and Pumas, which doesn’t leave much room for error. And if the Boks lose against Australia at Ellis Park next week and then the Kiwis away, the ensuing trip to Argentina will suddenly become too important to risk experimenting with selections.
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