Cape Town - Springbok coach Allister Coetzee is already likely to have his provisional squad for the four-Test tour of the northern hemisphere very close to the front of his mind.
But if there’s any teetering over certain personnel - and there probably will be in certain cases? - then the Currie Cup semi-finals this weekend (Sharks v Blue Bulls, WP v Lions) may yet prove influential in affecting a few choices.
Not everyone listed below is a realistic candidate for Bok honours right now, but this is a selection of particularly appealing individual match-ups that Coetzee and his confidants may show special interest in during the course of Saturday ...
Dillyn Leyds (WP) v Andries Coetzee (Lions)
John Dobson has almost inevitably stoked up strong debate in Cape Town around his decision to bench twinkle-toed young utility entertainer Damian Willemse and shift Leyds from wing to the last line of defence for the Newlands semi. But it means that two incumbent members of the Bok coach’s much-discussed back three now play directly opposite each other in a key provincial game. A forceful display at No 15 from canny footballer Leyds might only turn up the heat further on the Lions man, who hasn’t yet shown proper game-breaking qualities in a Test jersey, for all his honest endeavour and sound basics.
Garth April (Sharks) v Warrick Gelant (Blue Bulls)
Yes, the unpredictable, diminutive April is a long way off the Springbok radar at this point, but this is another fullback battle in the semis to keep a keen eye on, as neither protagonist ought to be fearful of doing daring things with ball in hand. Gelant is in red-hot form (including in try-scoring) for the resurgent Bulls and naturally being quite heavily touted as the solution to current Bok “safety”, at the expense of outright dazzle, in the berth. A dynamic closure to the Currie Cup season by the latter should ensure a broader squad ticket to Europe … at very least.
S’bu Nkosi (Sharks) v Travis Ismaiel (Blue Bulls)
There aren’t too many wide-berth “buses” in the South African game these days, especially with JP Pietersen long absent in chillier climes, but here two of the more stoutly-built specimens of domestic wing play encounter each other at Kings Park. The 1.90m Ismaiel has represented SA ‘A’ but not yet the full national set-up at Test level, and is showing encouraging late-season lustre as the Bulls pep up their attacking play and create more generous space. He will usefully examine the defensive capabilities of Nkosi, the sturdy-legged 21-year-old Sharks left wing who many pundits wish to see earn an end-of-year tour passage.
EW Viljoen (WP) v Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Lions)
The physical side of things should come to the fore in this match-up, too, as WP’s emerging Viljoen, a tall-timber individual, squares up to Lions favourite Janse van Rensburg in what could be a pivotal scrap at outside centre. The latter has tasted Bok activity before - he played against Wales on the decidedly unmemorable 2016 Euro trip - and is challenging strongly afresh. A few decisive bursts over the advantage line in Cape Town could see him needing to dig out his passport again ...
Lukhanyo Am (Sharks) v Burger Odendaal (Blue Bulls)
There’s another decent No 13 tussle in the Durban clash, where wiry, combative and industrious Am is trying desperately to make up lost ground from a recent injury and sneak into the Bok mix for the trip across the equator. He will get no special favours in his bid to wow “Toetie” on Saturday from the Bulls captain; Odendaal is also no shrinking violet in midfield and, at 24, has every right to still dream of green-and-gold possibilities himself, even if maybe a bit further down the line. He fits both midfield slots pretty comfortably, remember.
Wilco Louw (WP) v Jacques van Rooyen (Lions)
As much as Bok tighthead incumbent Ruan Dreyer’s oft-penalised scrummaging technique will come under ongoing scrutiny on Saturday - he’s up against seasoned ex-Jo’burger JC Janse van Rensburg at the setpiece - he will also be nervously gauging, from right nearby, how his younger rival in the game at No 3, Louw, fares against the hefty Lions skipper Van Rooyen. The 23-year-old hardly looked overawed in his Test debut off the bench in the second half against the All Blacks at the same venue very recently and will have to take an unexpected, major pummelling from Van Rooyen not to be on the plane to Europe.
Bongi Mbonambi (WP) v Malcolm Marx (Lions)
OK, saying that Marx has been a cut above any other South African hooker this season is stating the bleeding obvious. His right to the current No 2 Test jersey is virtually beyond dispute, so he can approach this game in at least a reasonably relaxed frame of mind. Just a tad more anxious, though, might be his rival Mbonambi, who has also been his understudy in most Bok games this season. A tenacious, mobile character but not in Marx’s league for physical presence, Mbonambi was ousted on the splinters by Chiliboy Ralepelle for the electric NZ clash a couple of weeks back ... this is his opportunity to reclaim “best of the rest” status with an assertive showing.
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