Cape Town – The sensible bet, for Thursday’s team announcement, is that Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus will stick extremely rigidly to his knockout-phase personnel thus far for the World Cup final against England in Yokohama on Saturday.
There would hardly be a mass furore …. even if an understandable lobby still believes error-prone fullback Willie le Roux, in particular, should be stripped of his berth even at this late stage of the event.
Between the respective quarter-final (Japan, 26-3) and semi-final (Wales, 19-16) victories, the Bok mastermind made only one alteration to his entire match-day 23: the enforced one for the semi as right wing sensation Cheslin Kolbe sat out with an ankle injury and S’bu Nkosi deputised.
With the increasing likelihood that Kolbe will be passed fit for the showpiece, his restoration – and far likelier at No 14 than 15, too -- may well be the lone tweak of any kind for the challenge of the fancied English.
While both KO-stage wins were industrially, conservatively earned, just being on that roll at the key business end of the tournament may be enough to persuade the head coach to keep change to an absolute minimum.
Yet Erasmus is not incapable of the occasional surprise in selection – sometimes either because he feels “rotation” is prudent at a particular time, or as he makes some allowance for the horses-for-courses principle.
So just one curveball possibility is the recall of the squad’s brawniest hooker, Malcolm Marx, to the starting mix ahead of incumbent Bongi Mbonambi, the slightly more diminutive but still tough-as-teak scrapper who has worn No 2 on his back for both the Japan and Wales encounters.
There is desperately little difference between them in playing standards – read: mutually, pleasingly high – at present.
Both contributed fulsomely again, for example, to Sunday’s tense triumph over the Welsh, where the Bok pack’s collective zest and robustness throughout played a far from insignificant part in the outcome.
Whereas Marx had replaced Mbonambi just before halftime against Japan, because the Stormers man was limping, a suitably recovered Mbonambi had been the starter again in the Wales game and gave a strong 48-minute shift before Erasmus sent on an entirely fresh row, including the Lions-based behemoth.
As much as anything, Marx used the half hour or so that he got as a “supersub” to confirm that he is back much closer again to the level that made him such a globally talked-about figure some two years earlier, even at a time when the Boks were collectively floundering in so many respects.
He had also got stuck in quite ferociously against the Brave Blossoms a week earlier, cleaning out rucks with vigour, tackling busily and providing the final off-load to scrumhalf Faf de Klerk for a 66th-minute try from a great rolling maul that really put the quarter-final to bed, as 14-3 turned 21-3 and one further Bok dot-down followed.
So while the ever-tenacious Mbonambi continues to do little wrong, and remind that South Africa boasts a wonderful array of customers in the specialist berth (including back home, where someone like the Cheetahs’ Joseph Dweba is on the up and up), Marx has been slowly turning up the heat, constructively, for a starting line-up recall.
What Erasmus really needs to decide is which way around he believes he can get the best out of both Mbonambi and Marx on Saturday: that said, the issue is a bit of a toss-up considering both men’s potential, frankly, in any period of the contest. Erasmus may be swayed by pure gut feel.
They are, after all, slightly different in make-up, with Mbonambi (106kg, 1.76m) arguably having an edge in mobility and Marx being more of a “door-stopper” in contact situations with his larger, 114kg and 1.88m proportions.
The coach will have to work out which of the pair is best suited to running out at the start against England’s likely first choice on Saturday, Saracens’ Jamie George – early pack statements could be crucial in determining which outfit eventually hoists the Webb Ellis Cup, as much as later impact-geared displays off the splinters might be.
George, aged 29 and sporting 47 caps, is no shrinking violet in the heat of the forward tussle with his own quite bulky frame, tipping the scales at around 113kg.
My own feeling is that Erasmus is going to go very much “status quo” with his Bok line-up, thus favouring Mbonambi to get first crack from the hooker’s slot.
But Marx instead? He may have a reasonable enough, 40-45 percent shout at wearing No 2 this Saturday, rather than No 16.
It wouldn’t exactly be a bombshell, such is the entirely healthy rivalry.
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