Aplon set for fullback start
Johannesburg - Stormers wing Gio Aplon looks certain to start the Tri-Nations Test against the All Blacks as fullback next Saturday after the release of Zane Kirchner to play Currie Cup rugby again.
With Racing Metro fullback Frans Steyn still in limbo as to the ankle injury he picked up in a French pre-season game last weekend, Aplon is likely to be partnered by the experience of Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen as the Bok back three look to take a much more attacking shape.
There is no doubt that the plans for the away leg of the Tri-Nations didn’t work out as expected. The much-vaunted kicking game, which is built on pressure, failed without the marshalling boot of Fourie du Preez and in certain positions players were only a limited success.
Steyn will only know more about his injury on Thursday, but even if he is cleared, he will only arrive back to join the squad on Friday, where many of the players will be sent home to enjoy a weekend with their families before reconvening on Sunday to start preparations in earnest for the Soweto showdown.
He has also been out of action for the last two months due to the European off-season and there are valid question-marks about the reasoning behind his sudden reappearance in the Bok squad.
This means the Boks are likely to have a Stormers flavour at the back, with Juan de Jongh also set to get a starting role in the absence of Jaque Fourie, who will miss the Soweto game due to suspension.
The Boks have released Kirchner and Dewald Potgieter to the Blue Bulls and Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis to the Sharks for their Currie Cup fixtures. The Bulls have drafted both players directly into the side while the Sharks will start their duo off the bench this weekend.
However, there was talk in the Bulls camp at expecting Wynand Olivier also to return to Currie Cup duty and that he would only remain with the Boks if Steyn was injured. If this is true, then it is the strongest indication yet that the Boks will go into the Soweto Test match with the duo of Jean de Villiers at inside centre and De Jongh outside him.
Of course, if Steyn is ruled out it could also leave a bit of a hole in the Bok plans, so much so that Kirchner may be recalled to provide stability at the back. The other idea that has been toyed with is to drop Habana, who has been woefully out of form of late, and play Aplon on the wing. Either way, ‘Appels’ is likely to be involved in the action.
So much currently hinges on the diagnosis of Steyn that the Boks are keeping their cards close to their chest. An example of this is the veiled secrecy behind Tuesday’s opening practice, where media were asked to leave after the warm-ups and it has now become apparent that Western Province defensive coach Jacques Nienaber was working with the team during the session.
It shows the urgency with which the Soweto Test is being taken and the need for the Boks to secure a victory, rather than a fourth straight loss at the historic venue.
Dewald Potgieter’s return to the Blue Bulls and the fact that Western Province have bracketed Francois Louw for a possible return could well signal the Bok intentions to return to their tried and trusted trio of Pierre Spies, Juan Smith and Schalk Burger.
However, the argument exists for a genuine fetcher to counter Richie McCaw at the breakdowns, especially with Northern Hemisphere referees pointing to a lottery in this area again.
The return of the two Sharks players mean that Chiliboy Ralepelle is likely to start from the bench behind captain John Smit, in his 100th Test match, and that Gürthro Steenkamp, possibly the Springbok forward of the season thus far, will start at loosehead.
The only other talking point, if you could call it that, is whether to play the youthful exuberance of Francois Hougaard at scrumhalf, or continue to lumber with an off-form Ricky Januarie. No guesses which one is favoured around the country.