Cheslin Kolbe should play at 15 in the first Lions Test
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DURBAN - Sparring partners Rassie Erasmus and Warren Gatland could not be in more contrasting positions as they finalise their teams for the first Test. The Lions boss is scratching his head over whom to leave out of his multi-talented squad while for the Boks it is a simpler task of confirming which of the World-Cup winning match 23 are cleared of Covid and fit to play.
Barring two players from that starting line-up in Japan in Tendai Mtawarira (retired) and Duane Vermeulen (crocked), plus two bomb squaders in Francois Louw (retired), RG Snyman (burn victim) it is the usual suspects for the Boks.
The million-dollar question is which camp is in the better position after a build-up fraught with pandemic-incurred obstacles.
The Boks are a settled team but they have barely played while the Lions are a new collective yet their individuals were playing Test matches for their counties while the South Africans were in one of the world’s worst lockdowns.
Also, the Lions will be frustrated that South Africa’s franchises could only muster meek opposition.
For the Boks, will it really be a case of muscle memory kicking in? Encouragingly, there was a bit of that in their guise as SA A but it was also evident that what was sufficient to win that game will be inadequate against a much stronger Lions Test team which will be holding nothing back, as was certainly the case last Wednesday.
Many are saying that this series boils down to the sledgehammer strength of the Boks versus the skill and tempo of the Lions but Rassie will know this thinking is an ambush — Gatland has yet to play his Test pack together and on Saturday try telling the bristling Itoje, Lawes, Furlong, Jones et al that they are merely a rapier up against the Bok broadsword...
In a nutshell, the Boks have to offer more than forward physicality because this could well be matched. They have to engineer try-scoring opportunities too, and this regard it is massive that Handre Pollard has been cleared of Covid. He offers so much more than the next cabs off the flyhalf rank in Morne Steyn and Elton Jantjies because he has the physical ability to take the ball to the line and create half gaps for support runners, be it centre De Allende or an incoming blindside wing, or loose forward.
Steyn can’t do that and Elton won’t.
Speaking of sparking attacks, if Cheslin Kolbe is the best attacking back in the world does it not make sense to get the ball into his hands as often as possible? In Kolbe, Rassie has the key to unlocking the Lions’ defence and what an exciting selection it would be if Kolbe starts at 15 where he is bound to get way more attacking opportunities than he would on the wing.
The Lions will have to do their share of kicking and I would rather have Kolbe fielding the ball in the deep, with options galore in front of him, than tentative Willie le Roux and his unfortunate penchant for delivering ‘nothing’ kicks back to the opposition, and that opposition will include destroyers in Duhan van der Merwe, Josh Adams and Anthony Watson.
And if Willie makes way for Kolbe, who has played fullback for Toulouse, that opens up a wing berth for Sbu Nkosi, a warrior who is fearless in the air and deadly in his defence and finishing.
A back three of Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and Nkosi would be a force of nature.
This exact scenario was debated in the media before the World Cup final because Willie had been in poor form but Rassie was never going to drop him and Willie responded by playing a blinder in the final. He rose to the occasion when it mattered.
Let’s hope it is either one of the above scenarios — Kolbe at 15 or Willie rediscovers his mojo.