You can never be too sure when it comes to Springbok team selections.
As much as journalists have inside sources, you will only really know the final team once the coach announces the match-23.
So, as much as there has been talk that Damian Willemse could line up at fullback against England, you had to see it to believe it.
There were a number of circumstances that could’ve led coach Rassie Erasmus to change his course of thinking.
For one, he surprisingly called up Gio Aplon out of Japan, six years after his last Test match.
With Willie le Roux unavailable this week, one would’ve understood – although not necessarily agree with it – if Erasmus had opted for the experience of Aplon at a heaving Twickenham on a chilly autumn Saturday in London.
In addition, Willemse didn’t have a flash fortnight in the Currie Cup playoffs. He was well off his best in the semi-final against the Blue Bulls, and had to experience the agitation of being shifted to inside centre for the final against the Sharks.
As it turned out, WP coach John Dobson’s gamble backfired, and Willemse hardly saw the ball and didn’t have much of a chance to influence the game from No 12.
So, when the Strand youngster boarded the flight to London, you wouldn’t blame him if he wasn’t as confident as he normally appears to be.
Yet, Erasmus has stuck to his guns, boldly, and entrusted the 20-year-old with manning the last line of defence against a pretty desperate England side who are looking to rough up the Boks, judging on the team that Eddie Jones’ has picked.
Now that he has made the big call, let’s hope that Erasmus doesn’t force Willemse into the safety-first box, because that is one place in which he doesn’t belong.
Willemse has the hot feet to dazzle the European scene, and he must be let loose to play his natural game.
Of course, he must fulfil his primary duties too – he can expect a barrage of up-and-unders from Owen Farrell, and big centre Ben Te’o charging towards him, and his job will be to claim those high balls.
Willemse has the tools to spark the Springbok attack as well, with his biggest challenge perhaps being his kicking boot to clear the lines.
But as much as Erasmus deserves praise for backing Willemse, so he has to be questioned on a few other decisions.
Is Embrose Papier just a Springbok on paper? Here is one of the most naturally talented scrumhalves to come out of this country since the days of Fourie du Preez, and he is getting shoddy treatment from the Bok boss.
Papier has been the back-up for most of 2018 to Faf de Klerk, but as soon as the latter is out of the picture, the Bulls halfback is still on the bench – how does that make sense?
And we haven’t even brought transformation into that debate...
It is good to see Duane Vermeulen at blindside flank rather than No 8, as it means that he doesn’t need to worry about the wide channels, where Warren Whiteley will add some finesse to the attack.
Vermeulen also won’t need to fall back on cover defence, so he can play a much tighter role that involves ball-carrying, making big hits on the advantage line, and contesting the breakdowns.
As a result, Pieter-Steph du Toit is back at No 5, where he can ultimately give his best to the Boks. Yes, he was one of the stand-out players this year, but he often played like a lock at flank, and just lacks that yard of pace for the loose trio.
His major test will come in calling the lineouts, especially with George Kruis back at lock for England.
Erasmus is banking on Du Toit covering the loose forwards in case of an injury by picking two locks on the bench in RG Snyman and Lood de Jager.
That is an unnecessary risk by Erasmus, and Sikhumbuzo Notshe should’ve been on the bench at least, while Aplon would’ve been a wiser back reserve as well ahead of André Esterhuizen.
This Bok team, though, can beat England on Saturday – but only if the likes of Willemse is not restricted, and the lineouts and scrums function smoothly.
15 Damian Willemse 14 Sbu Nkosi 13 Jesse Kriel 12 Damian de Allende 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi 10 Handré Pollard 9 Ivan van Zyl 8 Warren Whiteley 7 Duane Vermeulen 6 Siya Kolisi (captain) 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit 4 Eben Etzebeth 3 Frans Malherbe 2 Malcolm Marx 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Bench: 16 Bongi Mbonambi 17 Thomas du Toit 18 Wilco Louw 19 RG Snyman 20 Lood de Jager 21 Embrose Papier 22 Elton Jantjies 23 André Esterhuizen.