The Rugby Championship offer Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus with an opportunity to rub out, or circle, a few names on his whiteboard for Project RWC 2019.
While it would’ve been ideal if all the players had been fit and available after the series win against England in June, Erasmus will see the coming Tests as a chance to trial the replacement players in the style he wants to play, and to potentially eliminate those who don’t adapt from contention for a place in the squad that travels to Japan next year.
Here are five positional wrinkles that Erasmus will want to have ironed out during the Rugby Championship:
Duane Vermeulen was back with a bang versus England, and offered some much-needed grunt and power to a Bok pack lacking so much the last few seasons. But with a move to Japan, Thor won’t be playing in the 2018 Rugby Championship which means SA’s form No 8, Warren Whiteley, will pack down at the back of the scrum.
And with flanker Siya Kolisi confirmed as captain, the Boks will field a loose-trio much looser than the one that lined up against England.
Vermeulen and Jean-Luc du Preez manhandled England defenders and had to make bone-crunching hits to stop opponents in their tracks. Kolisi had the role of sealing on attack, and linking up in wider channels with other forwards such as Franco Mostert.
With Whiteley and Kolisi as confirmed starters, a real bruiser will be required to start at No 6, and Francois Louw and Marco van Staden are the first two to get a go. Luckily, with Malcolm Marx back at hooker, the Boks may just be able to afford this luxury.
If the new combo doesn’t work, expect Kolisi back at openside sooner rather than later, complemented by two heavies.
Back-up flyhalf, and fullback
On attack it is clear Erasmus likes Handre Pollard taking the ball to the line, and even though he gave sporting talk of Elton Jantjies still being the second-choice flyhalf, Damian Willemse seems a better fit.
It’s why the Stormers pivot starts the first game on the bench ahead of Jantjies.
But Willemse’s attacking exploits, along with his educated boot, is also the reason Erasmus rates him as a possible back-up fullback to Willie le Roux.
Unlike Warrick Gelant, Willemse has a natural kicking game, just like Le Roux. He can also feature more prominently as a second playmaker, just like Le Roux.
But there will be questions. Fullbacks caught out of positioning seldom deserve plaudits, and having not played there this year, it may be too much to expect Willemse to revise in the Test arena.
Who will partner Am?
Damian de Allende was solid against England, but an injury has given Andre Esterhuizen the chance to team up with fellow Sharks centre Lukhanyo Am
Am looks likely to push Jesse Kriel for the No 13 jersey in the long run, especially because of his knack for defensive awareness and ability to get turnovers. And the inside centre berth is also not settled.
Perhaps that’s why Erasmus toyed with the idea of starting Pollard at 12. If Esterhuizen proves his worth at international level, any idea of Pollard at 12 will be shelved. If he doesn’t, expect Pollad to be SA’s version of Owen Farrell sooner rather than later.
Who is South Africa’s best tighthead? It’s a question that not even Erasmus seems to know the answer to at the moment.
The coach does like the look of Thomas du Toit off the bench, as the Sharks’ man and back-up loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff make a telling impact in the last 20 minutes.
Stormers big men Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw are not impact options, and one of the winner of a shootout between the two will probably be Erasmus’ first-choice tighthead come November.
What happens if Faf breaks?
If Faf de Klerk breaks down or has to head back to England, who starts at nine for the Boks? Emrbose Papier warms the bench in the Kings Park opener, but Erasmus chose to start Bulls’ teammate Ivan van Zyl against Wales.
Van Zyl is being praised as the real deal by anyone who has ever attended a Bulls training session, but Papier seems to be the kid with the BMT.
Papier offers everything on attack, but lacks a kicking-game, whilst the more pragmatic Van Zyl probably has the best kicking game among SA’s scrumhalves.
Luckily for Papier, as can be seen with De Klerk, kicking is an art that can be learnt.
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