Cape Town - It’s official, you might say: Rassie Erasmus is perfectly satisfied by now with the conditioning levels of his much-discussed, heftiest backline unit Frans Steyn.
The Springbok head coach on Thursday revealed a 6-2 split, in strong favour of forwards, when he named his bench for Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final clash with Japan in Tokyo (12:15 SA time).
While he has done so before at the tournament - against Italy, who faced exactly the same 23 now favoured by Erasmus for this weekend - repeating the trick for a make-or-break last-eight tussle is a more profound and educative step.
It is confirmation that, with 2007 RWC title-winner Steyn effectively covering every berth from flyhalf to fullback (specialist scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies is the only other backline reserve) the Bok mastermind is content the 1.91m, 110kg-plus customer is up to the demands of just about a “full eighty” if required in a truly pressure-cooker match.
While it is true that the 32-year-old Steyn had full outings in midfield against both Namibia and Canada, those one-sided minnow-nation matches in the pool phase required a little less intensity than will be required as RWC 2019 reaches its business end.
But the single-minded star has clearly shown enough, nevertheless, to persuade Erasmus that he would have sufficient air in his lungs to give the Boks “maximum” in an emergency on Sunday.
Steyn, who will earn his 65th cap in the highly likely event that he takes to the field at some point anyway, could be entrusted with any of the pivot, midfield or fullback spots against the Brave Blossoms, even if wing would be an unlikely posting: the Boks would likelier shift, say, Willie le Roux (four previous career starts out wide for the Boks) there if need be, with Steyn seamlessly taking over the last line of defence.
They could also employ the pace and elusiveness of deputy scrumhalf Jantjies in that sort of capacity if a major reshuffle was required; keep in mind that red-hot back three customer Cheslin Kolbe can also help cover scrumhalf with some aplomb.
In broader terms, Erasmus preferring a 75 percent forward-weighted bench is a major signal, you’d think, of the Bok game-plan: it will be to draw the Japanese into an unsubtle arm-wrestle as much as possible, strangling the pace they would love to bring into play on the day.
Six engine-room members being primed to come off the splinters also indicates that the Boks plan no let-up in that department - both in set-pieces and open-play collisional aspects – by having almost “two packs” of just about equal calibre to call on during the quarter-final.
There would have been a significant lobby favouring, for instance, Steven Kitshoff over Tendai Mtawarira at loosehead prop and also RG Snyman over front lock incumbent Eben Etzebeth, given the lanky former Bulls favourite’s noticeably sterling form of late.
But Erasmus, if really drawn on the subject, might well argue that Kitshoff and Snyman have – for their “sins” - always shown a special ability to provide genuine impact as reserves, whereas someone like Etzebeth is more tailor-made for getting stuck into the statement-making, initial physical skirmishes that can set an irreversible tone on a contest.
The backline? Well, players like Le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi and Faf de Klerk have their detractors for varying reasons, but they have also been very much part of Erasmus’s first-team fabric in recent weeks, and he has rooted for continuity in this first “KO” fixture.
One additional thought: it is a shame in some ways that tearaway loosie and ex-Sevens dynamo Kwagga Smith doesn’t crack the 23, as he would have provided additional stealth in an impromptu backline capacity in the event of truly chaotic disruption affecting that department.
The big hope will be that that doesn’t even remotely occur ...
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Franco Mostert, 21 Francois Louw, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn
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