Cape Town – Can Rassie Erasmus force two more big Test weekends in a row out of some his most valuable but hard-pressed pack members?
Even with the merciful benefit of a fortnight’s gap, that is a short-term issue the Springbok coach is almost certainly required to address ahead of their final push in the 2018 Rugby Championship - the home clashes with Australia (Port Elizabeth, September 29) and New Zealand (Pretoria, October 6).
His team as a whole put in an unusually murderous effort – something borne out by many of the statistics - to repel the All Blacks for a tumultuous 36-34 result in Wellington on Saturday.
Under such circumstances forwards, in particular, are stretched and battered to the very limits in physical terms, and Erasmus will breathe a sigh of relief that the nucleus of his charges - though a handful of more peripheral squad members have been released for some Currie Cup action - get a week out of competition now.
But the effects of the heroic “shutout” in the Cake Tin, marked by significant periods of demonic defence near the Bok try-line, will be most noticeable and potentially linger longer on a few individuals: three in particular come swiftly to mind.
Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert and Siya Kolisi were among the busiest in the department as the underdogs made a staggering, collective tally of around 230 tackles.
Warren Whiteley was another leading Bok contributor in that regard, but why I have singled the others out is because of their already extremely high workloads this season, both at Super Rugby and international level.
The Lions skipper, remember, had sat out a large portion of the Super Rugby campaign – almost three months – with a knee injury and must be enjoying the continuity he has had in recent weeks; the eighth-man is starting to look much more the force of old.
Several other frontline Bok forwards also have few current concerns of over-play in 2018, given their own injury-related situations or other circumstances.
In-form loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff has been largely injury-free, but only been the starting No 1 for the last two Tests in a row; he is infinitely more used to being a second-half impact factor for his country (with veteran Tendai Mtawarira starting), so in no special danger of burnout.
“Beast”, for his part, has had some useful down time in a sense as he appeared as late as the 58th minute against Australia in Brisbane and the 66th at the Cake Tin last weekend.
The remainder of the current first-choice front row, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe, have also had notably interrupted campaigns this year due to injuries, so likely to stay suitably fresh for the rest of the Championship and then into the four-match, Bok end-of-year tour beginning against England at Twickenham on November 3.
Even fresher will be senior lock Eben Etzebeth, bearing in mind that his long-awaited start to the rugby year only occurred in the Durban victory over Argentina on August 18.
But all of Mostert, Du Toit and Bok skipper Kolisi have been much more consistently active for either franchise or country this season, and their punishing shifts in Wellington will have aggravated the threat that harmful fatigue – which increases the chance of injury -- could be just around the corner.
The first-named player, who has just left the Lions for overseas climes with Gloucester, is a remarkable “machine” as he never seems to break down and almost unfailingly sees out matches, too (substitutions tend to come around him, rather than actually involve him).
But tiredness can catch up to any athlete at some point, can’t it?
A personal observation - albeit not necessarily correct - was that Kolisi was beginning to show some signs of both mental and physical exhaustion ahead of Saturday’s sensational match at Westpac Stadium, where he then proceeded, admittedly, to play perhaps his own best Test of the year.
The flanker has had an enormous amount on his plate in 2018, leading the Stormers in a troubling season (both results-wise for them and considering the ongoing boardroom/finance-related dramas at Newlands) and then onward into maiden exposure as the national leader and all that that task entails.
Kolisi has also, for the lion’s share of the time for both Boks and Stormers in 2018, not had nearby his fellow-senior leadership figure and great friend Etzebeth to relieve some of the pressure from his shoulders.
As for Du Toit, his unusually animated, tearful reaction to the final whistle in Wellington summed up just what a valiant shift he had put in (the supreme tackler on the day, according to some stats sources, and this scribe’s player of the match) to ensure the sweet victory.
A stronger sense of selection continuity brought amazing reward for coach Erasmus on Saturday, so he would not lightly make any decision to rest any of the three players pinpointed here (and perhaps certain others) for either of the looming PE or Pretoria dates.
But he will also be aware that some kind of “battery preservation” may be necessary in needy cases, sooner rather than later, with longer-term objectives in mind.
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