Early series kill would aid Rassie’s plans

2018-06-15 12:55
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Shifting onward to Newlands with the England Test series safely in the bag would be of enormous benefit to Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus for his “bigger picture” intentions.

Given the heart-stopping closeness of the first clash at Emirates Airline Park last weekend, which the Boks dramatically eked out 42-39, few in the Bok camp are likely to be guilty of placing the cart too flippantly before the horse for the middle Test in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

But apart from the incentive (and satisfaction) of simply clinching the series in the central city - a fitting way to mark Tendai Mtawarira’s 100th appearance in green and gold - Erasmus would probably be doubly appreciative of another victory as it would facilitate a dead-rubber date next weekend.

He has made no bones about his wish to fiddle with combinations and widen his pool of quality players - geared toward RWC 2019 in Japan - over the next few months.

So if the series is ziplocked ahead of Newlands, there must be a big chance that Erasmus will be fuelled less by an obsession to clean sweep England 3-0 than by recognising a tantalising opportunity to gauge some of his slightly more peripheral personnel.

Doing that would also help give him a better idea of his “A-team” for the even greater demands of the Rugby Championship from mid-August, where supporters will be hoping for a markedly better showing than in the 2017 event: the Boks ended third of the four countries, and a distant 14 points behind unbeaten winners New Zealand.

The other thing to consider is that the closing Test against England will quite likely be played in noticeably different conditions to the first two (both at altitude and on firm, fast pitches).

Although it is expected to be very chilly, the Bloemfontein Test is anticipated to be played on a dry surface again on Saturday.

Drought-ravaged Cape Town, by contrast, seems to be having its welcome first more “traditional” early winter in several years, characterised by consistent rain of late, and the long-range forecast suggests it could be heavy going at Newlands - something that England would hardly grumble about.

Especially if his charges are a safe 2-0 to the good going into that clash, Erasmus could feel much more confident of, and justified in, a pronounced bag-shake in selection … possibly including certain horses-for-courses picks.

Just for example, would the attack maestro who is Willie le Roux really be the best bet at fullback in a mud-bath? Is there a case for either resting the experienced, overseas-based customer or shifting him to wing, perhaps, to effectively serve as a useful assistant to a different, rawer No 15 like Warrick Gelant?

Four-cap Gelant, not yet sporting a Bok start in his preferred berth, has played a lot of his franchise rugby in Highveld conditions for the Bulls, so a wet day at Newlands - and the series already decided - could be a highly useful, acid examination of the younger man’s ability to adapt.

A slow pitch in Cape Town could also serve as an educative second opportunity (he made a bright debut against Wales in Washington DC) for someone like the robust Sharks unit at inside centre, Andre Esterhuizen, to show his mettle in such circumstances.

After his five-star showing in Johannesburg, it will take a serious shocker in Bloemfontein for Faf de Klerk’s stocks to be downgraded as likely first choice for a while in the long-time problem berth of scrumhalf.

But he does now boast a dozen Bok appearances, and sooner or later South Africa need to feel comfortable that their “second No 9” - whoever it is - has enough experience if suddenly required to be tossed to the wolves as a starter for a big date.

Ivan van Zyl made his debut in the difficult fixture against Wales, and a Newlands dead rubber would be a suitably “relaxed” sort of landscape to peruse his abilities as a starter once more.

If they are 2-0 up by next weekend, Erasmus and his lieutenants would do well to seize the opportunity, too, to rotate at loose-head prop, following veteran Mtawarira’s emotion-charged day this Saturday.

Steven Kitshoff has been an uncomplaining super-sub, in the fullest sense of the expression, for some time now and would richly warrant a start at his beloved home ground (by then just a third in the No 1 jersey, from 27 caps), and probably sacrificing nothing for the SA cause in oomph either at scrum time or in open play.

But before slightly more down-the-road visions come into play, of course, Erasmus’s charges need to emulate what happened in the last home series against England (under Heyneke Meyer’s tutelage, 2012) by prevailing in the second Test this Saturday against desperate foes to ensure the swift series shutout …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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