DURBAN - Whether by design or default, not to mention a touch of fortune, Rassie Erasmus is building a super Springbok pack that can potentially destroy all in its wake.
It is difficult to recall when last a Bok coach had such quality options at prop, hooker and in the second row, and now it is at loose forward that Erasmus is building his depth and continuing the process of finding the right balance. He has the jigsaw pieces to complete an impressive loose-forward puzzle and he is hoping that by the end of the Rugby Championship he has a slick fit.
The Bok loose trio did a fine job in the series against England, but Erasmus has subsequently said that the teams in the Rugby Championship ask different questions to those posed by the well-drilled English, who tend to have a “paint by numbers” strategy, whereas the likes of New Zealand and Australia model their play around the X-factor so rich in their players.
As is well documented, Duane Vermeulen will not feature in the Rugby Championship but such was his impact against England, Erasmus can bank on Vermeulen as his first-choice No 8 and concentrate on building his depth in that position and in the two flank roles.
Erasmus also knows what he has in Jean-Luc du Preez, the hefty flank who made more offloads than any other player in Super Rugby and, of course in his captain Siya Kolisi, who will be the first name written onto the team sheet for the World Cup opener against the New Zealand next year.
The difference from the June series, though, is that Kolisi is going to switch to No 7 flank where his ball-carrying skills will be better utilised. This frees up Erasmus to explore his options at openside flank. To that end he has recalled world-renowned fetcher Francois 'Flo' Louw and called up new caps Marco van Staden and Cyle Brink, who can also play at No 7 or even 8.
In the words of Erasmus, Brink is “an in-between player who can both play to the ball and carry, and do the things that a blindside flanker does”. Louw has also played Test rugby at No 8, and with success.
In the short term, while Vermeulen is indisposed, Warren Whiteley returns with his own unique brand of play. He is a different type of No 8 to Vermeulen, more of a Gary Teichmann with his excellent linking and reading of the game, and does not contest for the ball as Vermeulen does, meaning Erasmus has to counter this by playing an out-and-out fetcher, especially against the Kiwis and Australians.
Louw would have to have the inside track for the No 6 berth (why recall an overseas player if you are not going to use him) and he proved his skill of fetching at the 2015 World Cup when he finished with the second most turnovers in the tournament. But in the short term Erasmus wants to test Van Staden and Brink.
Springbok assistant coach Jacques Nienaber in discussion with Springbok prop Wilco Louw before the start of Tuesday's defence session in Durban. @MTNza @Official_Bozza #LoveRugby pic.twitter.com/3yDrNnVhZr— South African Rugby (@Springboks) August 14, 2018
Last week in Stellenbosch he said: “Marco is an opensider in the Heinrich Brussow or Francois Louw mould and there are times when you need a player like that - had he been fit he would have started the Test matches against England as first choice, but unfortunately he injured his knee playing for the Bulls. There will be times when I will play both of them (Louw and Van Staden) together. You need that type of skill against the All Blacks, and Flo has shown he can do it at No 8 against them.”
What Erasmus is doing is assembling a dynamic pool of versatile loose forwards who can seamlessly shift around the back row. Kolisi is another who can play at No 6, 7 or 8. He started out his career as a blindside flank and it was Heyneke Meyer who changed him to openside.
He made a good fist of it, but in fairness he is not a born ball scavenger and is probably better suited to No 7. Kolisi’s Stormers teammate Sikhumbuzo Notshe is likewise capable of playing at No 8 or flank. The options for Erasmus and the Boks at loose forward are eyebrow-raising.