CAPE TOWN – If you think the Springboks were on shaky ground over the last two years, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
And no, that is not a slight on new coach Rassie Erasmus, as his team haven’t played a game.
It’s rather to do with the quality – or the lack thereof – in the South African Super Rugby teams in 2018 that is a real worry just seven weeks before the first Test of the Erasmus era against Wales in Washington DC on June 2.
Having just concluded a second Springbok “alignment camp” in Vanderbijlpark, the former loose forward will feel that he has his ducks in a row – but are they the best “ducks”?
The two main captaincy candidates, Eben Etzebeth and Warren Whiteley, have either not played at all this year or missed most of the season so far.
Yes, Whiteley is expected to be back on the field sometime during the Lions’ forthcoming tour Down Under, but he was injured on March 10 already.
Etzebeth would do well to return from a serious shoulder injury for the last few Stormers games in May before the Test season begins, but it’s a big ask at the moment.
Add in the current struggles that the other possible captaincy option Siya Kolisi is experiencing with the beleaguered Stormers, and you realise the enormity of the challenge facing Erasmus – and that’s just in terms of the leadership of the team.
Here are the facts: the Lions may be second on the overall Super Rugby log with five wins out of eight games and 25 points, but they are two behind the Hurricanes, who also have a game in hand, and have been leaking too many tries.
You will have to move your finger all the way down to ninth position to find the next South African team, the Sharks, on 14, with the struggling Stormers in 11th on 13 and the Bulls 12th on nine.
That’s a pretty dismal situation.
In terms of selection, things are not clear-cut in many respects. Who is the best fullback at the moment?
Andries Coetzee has been fairly consistent, but we know his limitations at Test level; Warrick Gelant hasn’t found his spark yet; Dillyn Leyds is being played largely at wing by Robbie Fleck, and there will always be question marks around Curwin Bosch’s defence.
At wing, do you give a red-hot rookie like Aphiwe Dyantyi a chance? Will Erasmus finally grant Lukhanyo Am the No 13 jersey, or will he opt for the experienced and also revitalised Jesse Kriel? Who should start at scrumhalf?
One player I feel Erasmus has probably made his mind up on would be Handré Pollard at flyhalf, as he possesses the kind of physical presence and big boot at No 10 that most South African coaches prefer.
But it wouldn’t be a total shock if Johan Goosen’s comeback to rugby on Friday night for the Cheetahs ends in a Bok call-up either.
With the Stormers battling, the national stocks of someone like Nizaam Carr may have dropped, although Erasmus is a known admirer of Duane Vermeulen anyway.
Vermeulen, though, is another curious case, as he can also play at No 7, while he has yet to announce which team he will join after leaving Toulon at the end of the European season.
For me, Jean-Luc du Preez deserves to start at blindside flank as he has been a stand-out for the Sharks.
Where he has normally been a “basher”, Du Preez has improved his game immeasurably, combining a hard edge with silky handling skills and lineout-jumping ability.
But Erasmus may also look at utilising the belligerent Pieter-Steph du Toit on the side of the scrum, even though he is an even better No 5.
While there are enough quality replacements at lock should Etzebeth not be ready to play against Wales, who should be the props wrapping their arms around Malcolm Marx in the scrums?
Wilco Louw was the undoubted top No 3 last year, but has been a bit inconsistent in 2018 – and there has been talk of Vincent Koch being brought in from Saracens.
And is Tendai Mtawarira still the best No 1 in South Africa?
Steven Kitshoff was the man putting the Sharks veteran under pressure, but the ginger-haired loosehead has not been his dominant self lately at the Stormers.
So, at this point in time, probably only Pollard can feel genuinely confident of running out against Wales.
Erasmus is already feeling the heat by virtue of being the Bok coach, and the extra job of director of rugby doesn’t help his cause either.
And on Thursday, he lost his forwards coach Pieter de Villiers as well.
He is highly regarded by many for being able to think out of the box, though, but with so much uncertainty in terms of overseas players and a number of Super Rugby flops, the time has come for the Bok hopefuls to impress their new boss.