Cape Town – The contrast between the Springboks and All Blacks right now says so much about how the former have revitalised themselves and the latter are suddenly sweating, as RWC 2019 looms ever larger on the horizon.
While the Webb Ellis Cup-holders face a Bledisloe Cup tussle of titanic relevance against Australia at Eden Park on Saturday – they must earn speedy revenge over the Wallabies if they are to hog the Bledisloe for a 17th consecutive year – the Boks return to own shores for what has become a celebratory fixture, if you like, against Argentina in Pretoria.
Ill-advisedly being touted as a “friendly” in some circles just because it comes outside the already-decided Rugby Championship, the rematch against the Pumas is still an official Test and remains an important part of the Boks’ build-up to the World Cup.
But it is also a pleasing opportunity now for Rassie Erasmus’s buoyant charges to strut their stuff (almost certainly with an experimental starting line-up, to cocoon certain key personnel) before the home faithful, as well-merited champions for the first time in a decade of the southern-hemisphere competition.
That came about through Saturday’s stirring 46-13 disposal of the Pumas in Salta; it means that a certain, additional sense of “freedom” will accompany their task in the Loftus encounter.
By stark contrast, New Zealand, chastened by the 47-26 Perth drubbing from their foes across the ditch, ended a disappointing (and increasingly telling?) third in the Championship and really needing to avenge the result in some style in Auckland to not only retain the Bledisloe but remind an increasingly critical rest of the rugby planet – if they can -- that they are not a markedly fading force.
So while their head coach Steve Hansen cannot afford the luxury of a noticeably weakened XV for a necessarily red-letter date, SA counterpart Erasmus can justifiably opt to sit out some of his more blue-chip customers for protective purposes in the Highveld tussle.
Yes, the Pumas are capable of upsetting South Africa on these shores – they did so once in Durban, ahead of the last World Cup in 2015 – but the current Bok squad as a whole are a hungry, confident and well-conditioned bunch who just do not seem prepared, whatever their specific match-day composition, to slip on any banana peels.
Erasmus has already rotated his resources smartly, over the course of the three-match Championship, although remember that as many as 12 of the starting line-up in Salta had also begun the previous game (16-16 against NZ) in Wellington.
So plenty – the majority, even? – of that dozen may well be shielded from the Pumas follow-up.
Three players have begun all three Championship matches – Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth and Makazole Mapimpi – and the two forwards among that trio, especially, seem massively likely to have no role at all (or a bench one at best) on Saturday.
Similarly, iron man at No 8 Duane Vermeulen has played two bone-jarring Tests on the trot and picked up a knee-twist issue during the Salta match, albeit clearly not serious enough to force him off the park immediately. Starting at Loftus would be a surprise in his case, although the Boks would then need a different captain for the task.
Regular skipper Siya Kolisi – no Test activity yet in 2019 -- came through 47 lively minutes for Western Province at Currie Cup level against the Pumas at Newlands on Friday in his comeback from longish-term injury, but whether he is ready to be catapulted straight back into a Test match yet is something for Erasmus and his lieutenants to chew on.
There are plenty of highly-motivated squad members currently sporting limited game-time from the Championship, and no doubt itching for longer service in the Pretoria match.
Their ranks include, among others, Schalk Brits, Vincent Koch, Marcell Coetzee, Cobus Reinach, Lood de Jager, Thomas du Toit, Rynhardt Elstadt, Lizo Gqoboka, Andre Esterhuizen, Warrick Gelant, Elton Jantjies and Frans Steyn.
The Boks arrive back in South Africa on Monday morning, presumably to an appropriate welcome at OR Tambo …
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