Johannesburg - We are on the cusp of a weekend where the South African Super Rugby participation will probably be cut to one team, and perhaps zero, but there is a silver lining to this bleak scenario.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus confirmed the counter-point to an early South African exit from the southern hemisphere tournament when earlier this week he announced a squad made up of Stormers and Bulls players that will participate in a national training camp in Stellenbosch in the build up to the Rugby Championship, according to SuperSport.com.
Those players should be joined next week by Sharks players and possibly Lions players too, giving Erasmus a window to work with his players that has seldom been afforded to Bok coaches in the build-up to major tournaments other than the World Cup.
Not that the training camp stands to only be beneficial for the immediate task at hand. Erasmus is in the unique position of already being vested, more than one year out from the World Cup in Japan, in what comes beyond that. Whether he elects to continue as Bok coach himself beyond 2019 is open to question, for he may pass that job on to someone else so he can focus on the wider ambit of his position as director of rugby, but whatever happens, he will be the man in charge until the following World Cup in 2023.
So unlike his immediate predecessor Heyneke Meyer and the man who came before him, Peter de Villiers, there is benefit to him of taking a longer view. Paris 2023 should be as much in his sights as Tokyo 2019 is, and while both Meyer and De Villiers may both have thrown too many eggs into one basket in their quest for the immediate success that would have ensured survival, Erasmus doesn’t have that pressure.
Or he does have pressure, it is just a different kind of pressure. He needs to look after the next four year cycle, and while his selections so far have next year in mind, they are also serving the dual purpose in some instances of building towards the period 2020 to 2023.
Damian Willemse, one of the five uncapped players called up for the camp, may well be involved in next year’s World Cup. Erasmus spoke at the end of the England series, after Elton Jantjies’ misfire in the last test in Cape Town, of the need to fast-track Willemse, to take a look at his potential to be the alternative to Handre Pollard in the flyhalf pool building up to Japan.
Willemse only recently turned 20 and is still raw, but he has grown enough in the last 12 months to suggest that if he continues his sharp progress curve, he could well be the go-too man for the Boks at the World Cup should Pollard be injured or lose form.
Not that Erasmus would be totally comfortable with that situation, for he has always been a subscriber to the school of thought that experience in the key decision making position is crucial to the winning of a World Cup. Which really is the point of why Willemse is being pushed now - the more experience he can gain before the World Cup so much the better, but now is also a crucial building opportunity for him looking ahead to his likely later role in France four years later.
The other four uncapped players also fall into a similar category - they are all young enough and talented enough to be assumed to be likely stars of the next World Cup cycle. Indeed, looking at the five - Willemse, Salmaan Moerat, Cobus Wiese, Marco van Staden and JD Schickerling - makes you realise that this country, even if the performances of the national under-20 side don’t always reflect it, does have a strong pipeline of special talent flowing into the system.
Schickerling would probably have featured in Erasmus’ match day squads against England had he not been injured early in the Super Rugby season and ruled out for several months. Erasmus has had a high regard for the young lock ever since he first spotted him coming through the Western Cape school system and, when he keeps injury at bay long enough to build some momentum, Schickerling vindicates his billing as a potential future super-star.
He was the best forward in the 2017 Currie Cup and was the Stormers’ most impressive player in the first few games before he was injured. Wiese is mainly a blindside flank but showed in a recent Stormers game against the Sharks that he can be equally at home as a No 4 lock. Wiese is another potentially special player, while Moerat, who left school at the same time as Willemse, has followed up his captaincy role for the Junior Boks by being included on the Stormers bench.
Van Staden, given that his style of play is precisely what the Bok back row may need in order to attain the right balance, particularly given that Duane Vermeulen won’t be available for the Championship, could well have a starting role thrust on him before any of the others.
The point though is that Erasmus is getting an opportunity to work with these players, to get first-hand experience of what it is like to coach them and how they react to different situations and challenges.
The gap between now and the start of the Championship is also giving players who may have been over-played in Super Rugby a chance to catch some breath and recharge. Erasmus mentioned his skipper Siya Kolisi as an example of a player who may need to be used sparingly in the Championship, but that may not be necessary given the fact that by the time the first Championship game against Argentina arrives on 19 August, Kolisi would not have played for seven weeks.
The Stormers bowed out of Super Rugby a week ahead of the other teams that haven’t made the play-offs because of their second bye being scheduled for the last round, so the caveat to the Cape franchise’s poor performance this year is that the individual players are being given a much needed chance to rest.
On the other side of the flip-sheet, Erasmus is also getting an extended opportunity to work with and ease back three capped Boks who have been out injured - Eben Etzebeth, Coenie Oosthuizen and Trevor Nyakane.
Erasmus thanked the franchise chiefs for releasing the players for the extended camp but the reality is that there actually isn’t any representative senior rugby being played in South Africa at the moment outside of the Lions and Sharks’ Super Rugby commitments. The Currie Cup, this year to be played only over a single round, only kicks off in the second half of August, something which could have a positive impact on the attrition rate and energy levels ahead of what should be an important edition of Super Rugby in the World Cup year.
So while it would be great for the confidence of the Sharks’ Boks if they could succeed in what many regard as their Mission Impossible by beating the mighty Crusaders in their own backyard, and the Lions winning the competition would of course have massive benefits for South African rugby as a whole, it won't be all bad should the results this weekend not go the way of the local teams.
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