DURBAN - As much as there was a buzz of excitement before the unveiling of coach Rassie Erasmus’ first Test side in June, there is equal anticipation ahead of what will be a defining Rugby Championship for the rebuilding Springboks.
Erasmus has a lot to build upon from June with regards to his team, with the biggest change the coach will have to consider at lock with the return from injury of powerhouse Eben Etzebeth and who looks set to be thrown straight into the starting XV.
Etzebeth’s timely return is one that only adds to the riches the Boks have in the second row, with Franco Mostert, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and RG Snyman all in peek form and all worthy of starting the Test. However, for Erasmus, the decision to start Etzebeth after a lengthy lay off is to be able to manage the player’s workload better than should he come off the bench.
“Playing Eben off the bench is risky,” the coach explained. “If you get an injury in the first five minutes, he will have to go 75 minutes, so I would much rather start somebody like him to make sure that if he is tired then you can sub him, whereas on the bench you are in trouble if something happens.”
It also allows the coach to manage his other locks who have had a busy time across Super Rugby. “We have to manage guys like Franco Mostert and his game time, Elton Jantjies, even RG Snyman where he played every game basically for the Bulls,” Erasmus added.
It would appear then that Du Toit may have the inside line for the spot to start alongside Etzebeth, especially considering the abundance of good loose forwards as well. “With Lood de Jager out, and Mostert calling line-outs, as well as Pieter-Steph, those will probably be the two No 5 locks, and that means Siya Kolisi will play No 7 for us during some games,” Erasmus said.
While there is a lot to speculate over who will play in the loose forwards, especially with the coach adding that he wants to see debutants Cyle Brink and Marco van Staden get their caps in the next two games, the centre partnership is all locked up.
“(Andre) Esterhuizen is fit, and it is his home field, so it makes sense to select him rather than mixing and matching at this stage,” Erasmus said with regards to the speculation that Handre Pollard could play at No 12. “It is quite obvious I am going to put Andre and (Lukhanyo) Am together, and not because it is at the Sharks, that is just a bonus. It helps that the two of them have played together.”
Overall though, despite admitting that he has made his decision on the loose trio, it will no doubt be Erasmus' toughest balancing act. He has two newbies he wants to test, but also the return of a very different No 8 to that of his first choice Duane Vermeulen, and there are those in the second row who can also move to the flanks with Francois Louw also providing another option across all three positions.
“We will have to rejig the loose-forward combinations so we can keep the grunt and the softer skills,” the coach said. “We can’t just pop Warren (Whiteley) in at No 8 and think he will do the same job as Duane, but there is a lot of things that Warren can do that Duane can’t. What you lose in a certain aspect, you gain in others a lot more. When we do select the loose trio, we will nullify the losses in terms of attributes.”