If ever there was an example of how Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’ thought processes sow confusion in the minds of most South African rugby fans, it has to be the team he has selected to face Australia tomorrow.
Having planned to experiment against the Wallabies after the Boks bullied Argentina in Durban, the comprehensive defeat to the same opponents a week later in Mendoza forced him to telegraph that tomorrow’s game in Brisbane had suddenly become a must-win thing.
But then he selected what looked and felt like an experimental team.
Even with that outrageous goose-step for a prop, Beast Mtawarira is nobody’s idea of an impact player; Malcolm Marx – wonky lineout throwing and all – is rightly regarded as the country’s premier hooker, not a bencher; captain Siya Kolisi is back at openside flank after being called a blindside just a month ago; the Pieter-Steph du Toit experiment at blindside flank remains exactly that, an experiment; Elton Jantjies is back, which should get his haircut reviewers hot and bothered; and the Boks’ most experienced current centre pairing (Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel) will start their first game together six matches into Erasmus’ regime.
That said, most of the queries above can be countered.
Starting loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff’s performances off the bench have blown the selectors’ door off it’s hinges, one left shoulder at a time; hooker Bongi Mbonambi has been nothing short of sensational in the games he’s started this year; the absence of a specialist openside flanker in the pack is a challenge to the forwards to be as physical as they are clinical at the breakdown; Du Toit’s industry and availability as a lineout option is the nearest thing we have to a proper blindside while Jean-Luc du Preez recuperates; and Handre Pollard’s errant kicking has frittered away whatever stability he supposedly brought to the team.
Looking at those pros and cons, there’s a lot to read into Erasmus’ thinking – maybe even a little too much.
The first is that, clearly, he has a blank cheque with regards to his job safety and freedom to build a squad for the World Cup. It’s not often that a coach with a record of three defeats from five matches can “afford” to experiment by leaving some of his best players on the bench and handing out yet another debut (Cheslin Kolbe) for a match his side must win.
Strangely, though, there’s a victory of sorts for Erasmus in his quest to build a strong squad. Imagine the psychological boost to the many “second best” players in tomorrow’s starting line-up to know that it is they who will start a game they can’t afford to lose.
That said, the fact that there have been debutants in almost every Test played so far almost puts Erasmus in the same WhatsApp group as one Rudolf Straeuli, who cast the net so wide in preparation for the 2003 World Cup he didn’t know who to select by the time it came.
The wide casting of said net means Erasmus is also collecting a few rogue selections along the way, looking at the likes of Schalk Brits, Ox Nche, Curwin Bosch and Marvin Orie. And speaking of that, one has to ask what the thinking is behind Kolbe’s selection.
Ostensibly he is there as the backup fullback and a sometime wing, but what does that mean about the resolution to blood Damian Willemse as a fullback while he waits to take over at flyhalf? Also, doesn’t Kolbe’s pending debut tomorrow rob Willemse of precious game time in his crash-course to be in the starting line-up probably by next year?
The mildly (for now) disconcerting thing about the only constant in Erasmus’ line-ups being change is the fact that his team is seemingly not being built around the old spine of a hooker, eighthman, scrumhalf, flyhalf and inside centre, which tends to be a non-negotiable at international level.
Sure, injury, form and availability have been mitigating factors, but other than Marx and Duane Vermeulen in the positions above, do we have an inkling of who the others would be?
While it is reassuring that Erasmus has a mind that’s never seen the inside of a box, I have to admit to being as clueless about what his ultimate plan is as I was watching those disco lights at Free State Stadium all those years ago.