Cape Town - They say a new broom sweeps clean.
What remains to be seen is just how much Rassie Erasmus, the new Springbok mastermind, will strip down the team favoured by predecessor Allister Coetzee at the back end of his troubled two-year tenure.
There have already been strong hints that he will introduce a few new faces - inevitable as these come to light during a fresh Super Rugby season, for example - and possibly re-empower certain stalwarts overlooked by Coetzee.
He is also highly likely to seek a greater representation from abroad (SARU seems willing to bend their 30-caps rule for overseas-based players), and again these may include some Boks either overlooked completely or used to a spartan extent by “Toetie”.
For at least some indication of how much the Bok team may change for the June Tests against Wales (once-off, Washington DC) and then a series against England (home), it is worth reminding of the final match-day 23 selected by Coetzee.
That was for the 2017 season-ender against a severely under-strength Wales in Cardiff on December 2, a game the Boks lost 24-22 to only confirm their general suffering at the time.
It is worth mentioning that some high-profile players missed that Euro tour through injury or unavailability, including Jean-Luc Du Preez, Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Frans Malherbe, Jan Serfontein and Ruan Combrinck.
Here are the starting players deployed at the Principality Stadium then, and our speculation on where they may stand under the “Rassie regime” in 2018:
15 Andries Coetzee
Probably only a dark horse for the Erasmus nod after too many innocuous Tests last year, although he was excellent in the Lions’ thumping of the Stormers last Saturday. All of Curwin Bosch, Warrick Gelant and overseas-based Frans Steyn and Pat Lambie may be ahead of him in the fullback plans of the new coach. Psst, wunderkind Damian Willemse a thought at fifteen, too?
14 Dillyn Leyds
Falling off the radar fast, it seems? The utility back-three man was overlooked for a Bok “camp” list issued by Erasmus recently, and hasn’t shown much of his attacking X-factor for the Stormers. The new coach may seek for a more muscular hallmark among his wings, too.
13 Jesse Kriel
A resurgent, more slippery and cerebral character this year, clearly benefitting from the new dimensions brought to the Bulls’ Super Rugby campaign under John Mitchell. There will be challengers, but expect Kriel to be thereabouts, at very least.
12 Francois Venter
Has played a murderous amount of rugby over the past year or more, and that hardly helps any Bok aspirations for June. The inside-centre berth will also be sought by the likes of Frans Steyn, Damian de Allende, Serfontein and Andre Esterhuizen.
11 Warrick Gelant
The exciting Bulls runner made his first start for the Boks against the Welsh … but at wing rather than preferred fullback. It is possible Erasmus will still consider him versatile, though a return to No 15 seems likelier. There are other, more specialist “gas men” to consider out wide.
10 Handre Pollard
Playing with enough assuredness for the Bulls to be considered, arguably, still front-runner for No 10 by South Africa. That said, he faces strong rival claims from Elton Jantjies, Robert du Preez and perhaps Lambie.
9 Ross Cronje
Expected to return to fitness on the looming Lions tour of Australasia. But he could also be a casualty of an Erasmus bag-shake at No 9, even if the various alternative options aren’t exactly Joost van der Westhuizen-like for proven Test quality …
8 Dan du Preez
Hampered by a shoulder injury in recent months, though the sturdy 22-year-old is just back and potentially still a candidate as Bok eighth-man this year. Nevertheless, much will depend on whether Erasmus wants Whiteley as his captain … and his thoughts on a certain, gnarly Duane Vermeulen.
7 Pieter-Steph du Toit
There’s an appealing battle looming for the Bok blind-side job, with at least two real powerhouses among the contenders … sometimes lock Du Toit and the Sharks’ in-form Jean-Luc du Preez. Du Toit was like a man possessed for the Stormers in a losing cause at Ellis Park last Saturday, as if to indicate that he’d really quite like to keep the SA No 7 jersey if the second row isn’t immediately an option, thank you …
6 Siya Kolisi
A (self-acknowledged) below-standard spell by franchise skipper Kolisi on the Stormers’ open side means the door may just be creaking open a tad for rival contenders. Still, there’s no Jaco Kriel to turn up real heat on him, regrettably, and Kolisi still has a few weeks to come good again.
5 Lood de Jager
A yeoman factor for the Bulls in 2018, carrying and tackling diligently and consistently, and looking a force at lineout time, into the bargain. At this point, seems a near shoe-in to keep the Bok No 5 shirt.
4 Eben Etzebeth
The big enforcer is in a race against time to be fit for the first part of the 2018 Test season, considering his inactivity throughout Super Rugby so far as he rehabs from a shoulder injury. But if he is back playing even a small dose of Super Rugby before the June obligations, expect him also to march straight back into his SA enforcer role.
3 Wilco Louw
Talk of Erasmus wooing back Saracens’ Vincent Koch into the Test picture should go a long way to keeping emerging tighthead prospect Louw right on his toes. I still fancy that the incumbent, 23, will remain the go-to guy as scrum anchor.
2 Malcolm Marx
Simply “no contest” for first-choice hooker. If Marx stays fit, he starts. It will be interesting to see whether Erasmus presses veteran Bismarck du Plessis back into service as back-up. After all, you lose very little in grunt.
1 Steven Kitshoff
Another Stormers pack member who has just slid a little off best known levels recently, though perhaps there’s been some over-use to consider. Still, Kitshoff is almost certain to remain among the top two Bok looseheads, with yeoman-serving Tendai Mtawarira (only two caps shy of his 100, remember).
* The forward substitutes that day in Cardiff included Bongi Mbonambi (absent for the Stormers for several weeks recently due to appendix problems), Trevor Nyakane (still a versatile prop candidate), Ruan Dreyer (slipping a bit in the tighthead pecking order?) and loosies Oupa Mohoje and Uzair Cassiem, both of whom may pay a price for being PRO14 rather than Super Rugby-visible of late.
Coetzee’s backline replacements in Cardiff were scrumhalf Louis Schreuder (playing decent rugby for the Sharks at times), Elton Jantjies (similarly in much more assertive form for the Lions again) and Lukhanyo Am (likely to fairly front-of-mind by Erasmus for the Bok No 13 jersey).
MY PREDICTION: The Bok starting XV, especially when it comes to the main June feature of the England series, will change by at least half from the losing Cardiff 2017 cause …
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