Cape Town – The Springboks’ European tour-opening match
against the Barbarians at Wembley on Saturday looks less and less useful to
coach Allister Coetzee the closer we get to the fixture.
Coetzee has bravely spoken up “enjoying having 45 players to
work with” at different stages over the course of the next month, as educative to
his succession planning.
But by having to pick separate squads for the Baabaas game –
minus any overseas-based stars – and then the three-Test portion of the venture
starting against England immediately afterwards, his inevitable, short-term
anxiety to start winning matches more regularly again after a bumpy year thus
far is done few favours.
The itinerary seems fatally the wrong way around, with the
Barbarians fixture arguably more suitable as a relaxed season-ender. Whichever
way he chooses his starting XV for Wembley, few of Coetzee’s combinations will
remain the same against Eddie Jones’s resurgent, ambitious English a week later
so it hardly helps to prime his troops for the crunch date of the entire trip.
It is also unfortunate from a Bok perspective that the
“easiest” Test on paper, against Italy, comes after rather than before England
– there is the danger that the Boks may find some rhythm just as the tour comes
to a close, rather than much earlier as is no doubt greatly desired.
Coetzee has a dozen uncapped players in his 30-strong squad
for the Barbarians challenge, and especially because of the overlap in certain
positions, not all of them will get a gig at Wembley.
The Bok coach will also have to pick as balanced a team as
possible, mindful that at least some seasoned personnel will be necessary to
ensure they get the tour off on a winning note – all a sizeable lobby of
green-and-gold devotees will ultimately care about – and to give certain
customers earmarked for “Twickers” seven days later a bit of an acclimatising
gallop if he feels it necessary in some instances.
That said, it is also possible that some core Bok tight
forwards who are virtual ever-presents, like Eben Etzebeth and Tendai
Mtawarira, will not be exposed to the risk of injury in the reasonably
lightweight tour “scene-setter” this weekend; this is a likely time for
fatigue-related mishap given that the long southern hemisphere season is just
about at completion.
Already confirmed as sitting out Wembley is regular captain
Adriaan Strauss – Pat Lambie will lead, almost certainly from flyhalf rather
than his recent fullback berth – which gives precious extra exposure to younger
deputies Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi.
So which novices seem most likely to run out for the Baabaas
game, even if the appearance won’t earn them an official cap?
Perhaps the best giveaway, or at least yardstick, is that
certain of the raw brigade will be staying on for the more heavyweight portion
of the tour, so Coetzee must be dying to see such players in action as quickly
A personal suspicion, against that backdrop, is that Sergeal
Petersen and Francois Venter of the backs, and Jean-Luc du Preez and Roelof
Smit among the forwards, will all start this weekend.
Outside centre has been a problem all year, and if cerebral –
not to mention in-form -- Cheetahs captain Venter were to excel against the
Barbarians, he would automatically earn inside lane, you would think, for No 13
in the huge England meeting.
Similarly, the national side has been labouring during 2016 in
the wing berths, and another Currie Cup-winning man from the Bloemfontein
set-up, Petersen, can catapult into the Test frame at Twickenham (bear in mind
that veteran JP Pietersen hobbled off with a knee problem for Leicester at the
weekend) if he is slippery against the Baabaas.
As the only truly specialist open-side flank across either
Bok squad for November, Blue Bulls fetcher Smit appears a racing certainty for
Wembley, and the rugged ball-carrying qualities of Sharks No 7 Du Preez should
also have an opportunity for confirmation on that score.
Du Preez, if he starts, may need an especially rousing
performance against the Baabaas as he will be competing with both Oupa Mohoje
and stalwart Willem Alberts for the blindside berth from next week.
While pointing out that it is a bit of a pot-luck exercise,
given how different a Barbarians game is to a Test, and that Coetzee’s
immediate intentions may differ substantially, here is my stab at a Bok
line-up, featuring up to seven SA debutants …
Possible Bok starting
line-up against Barbarians (team to be announced on Thursday): 15 Ruan
Combrinck/Jesse Kriel, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Damian de
Allende/Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Pat Lambie (capt), 9 Rudy
Paige, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Pieter-Steph du
Toit, 4 Lood de Jager, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
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