Boks have ammo for strong ‘last 20’

2018-06-07 13:36
Akker van der Merwe (Gallo)

Cape Town – The starting line-up almost exactly as speculated for much of the week, composition of Rassie Erasmus’s Springbok bench for the first Test against England on Saturday became an intriguing element … and it appears to cut the mustard.

South Africa’s still fledgling head coach, for a clash that looks pretty tough to call result-wise, revealed his hand for the keenly-awaited Emirates Airline Park fixture on Thursday and has good reason to anticipate crucial, late-game impact from his bench troops - assembled with a conventional five-three split between forwards and backs.

No doubt also hopeful that English legs and lungs will buckle in the final quarter at altitude (many of their ranks experiencing it at this premier level of the game for the first time) Erasmus has assembled largely appealing Bok firepower off the “splinters”.

At least on paper, it is a gratifying aspect, and could come into play positively - regardless of whether the home nation are protecting a lead at an advanced stage or urgently seeking to eliminate a deficit on the scoreboard.

Erasmus’s starting XV will not have significantly ruffled the feathers of the many pundits who predicted it almost to a tee from as early as Sunday or Monday, when it was already apparent that very few – it ended up being none – of the hastily-assembled, rookie line-up from the Wales defeat in the United States would crack the nod.

True to his prior-stated intentions, the coach shielded every single player who begins this Saturday from the long haul to Washington DC and back.

But the bench, by contrast, is fully subscribed by men who had at least some role, most of them fairly constructively, in the dubious Wales exercise.

That situation could change slightly if Wilco Louw, the tighthead prop who started last weekend, is hastily brought into the XV against England; the intended first-choice now, Trevor Nyakane, is nursing a doubt-raising niggle.

As with last Saturday, there is a strong sense of the “unknown” about the Bok XV, as an awful lot of combinations will be tried out for a first time, even if there is little reason to beef about the vast majority of selections on paper (including on the basis of 2018 Super Rugby form, which explains new caps RG Snyman, S’bu Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi).

But this week there are also some reassuringly more seasoned “captains of positions” … like 98-cap Tendai Mtawarira in the front row, Duane Vermeulen and captain Siya Kolisi as street-smart loosies, 28-Test Damian de Allende in charge of the midfield and Willie le Roux at the tiller, as it were, of the novice back three.

Particularly among the forwards, the bench could come up with some vital dynamite as the game develops.

Reserve hooker Akker van der Merwe will be on high alert, in some respects, as starter Bongi Mbonambi, while a deserving first choice purely on reputation over the last year or so (and considering Malcolm Marx’s unfortunate absence), boasts very little high-tier rugby in recent months after his appendix issues and may run low on gas after the break.

Van der Merwe, remember, is no stranger to Ellis Park despite his shift to the Sharks last year; he is a born-and-bred Gautenger and the “Angry Warthog” is tailor-made for impact purposes with his busy style and instinctive enthusiasm.

Then there’s Steven Kitshoff, the barnstorming loose-head prop who made a massive difference to the Bok scrum in Washington, as they looked to have taken charge last weekend ahead of the sadly game-swaying Robert du Preez charge-down.

Especially once the veteran Mtawarira has gone past the well-merited 100-cap mark for the Boks, the younger Kitshoff should only apply increasing pressure for the No 1 jersey (rather than 17), and that phenomenon may not differ when he enters the fray more immediately this Saturday.

But another with a point to prove once unleashed off the bench this weekend will be Pieter-Steph du Toit … possibly a little unlucky not to have made the run-out combo?

He offers a bit more “meat” than Franco Mostert does in the No 5 lock role (though the Lions trojan earns the starting rights here and will want to impress his home faithful), and the blond bomber was also finally looking the part as a Test blindside flank in the dying embers of Allister Coetzee’s coaching tenure.

Successor Erasmus, I believe, has also been shrewd in offering the rangy Sikhumbuzo Notshe a spot among the reserves for a second week in a row.

If the Boks are wanting or needing to up the tempo late in the contest, the skill set of the 25-year-old, potentially a bit of a “Pierre Spies” for thundering runs, could come in very handy on the usually rock-hard Highveld pitch.

There’s a game-changer by reputation among the backline reserves, too, as generally in-form Bulls representative Warrick Gelant could get an opportunity for some bamboozling stepping and jinking either from fullback or wing in the closing stages …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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