Johannesburg - The Springboks will finish the 2018 international season against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday with the first unchanged starting team of Rassie Erasmus’ tenure as coach.
There is just one change to the match day 23 that did duty in the narrow win over Scotland in Edinburgh last week, with Eben Etzebeth returning to the playing group after missing two successive matches with a foot injury. He displaces Lood de Jager.
Otherwise all the players who did duty at Murrayfield are back again in a selection that can be interpreted in two ways: firstly it is a vote of confidence in the side that has played thus far and an indication that Erasmus’ plan is now coming together, and secondly it is an indication of how seriously the Boks are taking this last game of the year.
Erasmus said earlier in the week that the Welsh were expected to provide his team with the toughest opposition on the tour, and his preaching of the continuity mantra, something he has been building towards but hasn’t done thus far in 13 test matches, appears to back up that view.
Apart from Etzebeth and perhaps one or two variables that might come into play next year, such as the return to full fitness of some players (De Jager being one, the Tendai Mtawarira another) and the probable return to the No 9 jersey of Faf de Klerk, this does look like a close replica of what Erasmus should consider his best team for the World Cup.
It has been a while since the Boks have won in Cardiff, something that used to be a happy habit for them, and the refusal to experiment is an indication of how seriously they are taking the business of setting the record straight. The Welsh beat the Boks in Cardiff in 2014, 2016 and last year, and also lost in Washington earlier this year.
So it amounts to four defeats in the last five starts against the team from the Principality, the exception being the win in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final in London.
“Wales have a formidable squad and their current run of eight unbeaten tests is proof and also an indication of their good form at the moment,” said Erasmus.
“As I’ve said before, we know Saturday’s test is going to be our most difficult match of the tour.”
The Springboks have shown growing maturity in their last couple of tests, with composure winning the day in close games, and Erasmus would like them to finish off on the winning note that will provide the confidence boost they need ahead of the World Cup year.
“Wales defeated us in Washington in June and have now won the last three games against us,” added the Bok coach.
“They are a well-balanced and strong side with a great home record, so our boys will be in for a massive contest on Saturday. We will be desperate to win, and to end the tour on a high would be fantastic for the experience and growth of this squad.”
The selection of an unchanged team means that there has been minimal change to the Bok playing squad during the four-match tour. Some might question that, but Erasmus has done enough experimentation this year, and it has cost him some matches. Indeed, it is because of his quest for depth to his World Cup options that the Boks are going into this last test with only a marginal positive balance to Erasmus’ first season in charge.
If the Boks win on Saturday they would have won eight and lost six games, whereas a defeat will leave them at just 50%. That is not really an accurate reflection of the growth the team has undergone this year, and Erasmus will look back at the aforementioned match against the Welsh in Washington, the third test against England and possibly the away Rugby Championship matches against Argentina and Australia in particular as ones that his team should probably have won.
They also butchered the opening test of this tour against England but that wasn’t down to experimental selections, and neither was the last gasp defeat to the All Blacks in Pretoria, where perhaps Erasmus will regret some of his own decisions in addition to some of the onfield calls that were made.
Several players selected for this tour will leave for home without having received a playing opportunity, but Erasmus did get a good look at the players who are vying for problematic positions or positions where he started out with question marks over depth.
For instance, De Klerk’s absence from all but one match on tour has allowed him to have a proper look at the scrumhalf back-up. Ivan van Zyl started against England and delivered a solid performance while Embrose Papier was good as a replacement at Twickenham and showed how much he has benefited from the grooming process and his apprenticeship on the bench with his excellent first start in the Edinburgh game.
He deserves his second start in the No 9 jersey at Millennium Stadium and Erasmus' decision not to call back De Klerk is a strong endorsement of the 21-year-old.
Damian Willemse, another young player is just making his way in senior rugby but expected to play an important back-up role at both fullback and flyhalf next year, also played in the London test. While he hasn’t had another chance, which was something that might have been anticipated given what Erasmus said towards the start of the tour, the need to keep the winning momentum picked up subsequent to London, and the continued good form of Cheslin Kolbe as an impact substitute, probably played a part.
Several of the combinations are now starting to settle and it is right that Erasmus has allowed them to grow into the team and into their roles.
Kick off on Saturday is at 19:20 (SA time).
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15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Nicky Smith
Substitutes: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Ellis Jenkins, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin
15 Willie le Roux, 14 S’bu Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Embrose Papier, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Eben Etzebeth, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Cheslin Kolbe