JOHANNESBURG – Could having to decide on his World Cup wings be the toughest decision of them all for Rassie Erasmus?
It certainly seems that way considering the talent going around in South African rugby - and abroad.
While there is still some way to go before the Springbok coach has to finalise his Japan-bound squad, the race to be one of the wingers in the 31-man World Cup squad is well and truly on.
There are three men taking part in the Bok alignment and planning camp in Pretoria; namely Aphiwe Dyantyi, Dillyn Leyds and Cheslin Kolbe, and three more could join them from next Monday, namely the Sharks’ Makazole Mapimpi and S’bu Nkosi and Cornal Hendricks from the Bulls.
From these six wingers, Erasmus will probably have to pick three to go to the World Cup. All have their strengths and weaknesses, like Kolbe and Leyds also being able to play full-back without breaking a sweat, which gets them an extra tick behind their names.
And if Willie le Roux is going to be the first choice full-back, who can also cover wing - a position he has played regularly in the past at the highest level - then Erasmus may even decide to only take two recognised wingers to Japan. And that scenario becomes more enticing were Warrick Gelant and Frans Steyn to make the final squad, because they, too, could quite comfortably slot in on the wing.
Not in the selection frame at this stage are Courtnall Skosan, Sergeal Petersen, Rosko Specman, Rabz Maxwane, Travis Ismaiel and Ruan Combrinck, who all have their backers, but Erasmus will first consider the three men he’s already picked (for the alignment camp) and the three likely to come in next week. So how do the leading candidates stack up?
The name on everyone’s lips now is 31-year-old Hendricks, who scored two tries in last weekend’s Super Rugby quarter-final against the Hurricanes.
His return to rugby following heart problems and being told he shouldn’t step between the four white lines again is a fairy tale. He showed this season by scoring five tries he still has a killer instinct and backed that up by making 60 tackles in his 14 games.
He’s a seasoned campaigner who earned 12 Test caps in 2014/15 and would be a popular inclusion in the final squad. Kolbe, too, has been highly praised in recent weeks. The Toulouse-based Top 14 winner may be small, but his pace, eye for the gap and experience will be hard to look past. He grabbed his chance for the Boks last season and continued to shine in France over the last few months. He beat 134 defenders and made 49 clean breaks in his 24 games in the Top 14; a player with real X-factor.
The Stormers’ Leyds played nine times for the Boks in 2017, but was overlooked last season. Some quality performances in a battling team this year though have not gone unnoticed. In 109 runs in his 15 games he made 962m for his team, which included 16 line breaks and 39 tackle busts. He also made 49 tackles. He’s a player who’s got something to be excited about.
The most consistent performer this year has probably been 28-year-old Mapimpi, who earned four caps last year.
In 16 Super Rugby games he scored five tries, made 843m, broke the line 14 times and busted through 23 tackles. He also made 71 tackles and missed just eight.
If he stays fit, he’ll be on his way to Japan.
Mapimpi’s Sharks teammate Nkosi became a Bok regular last season and he, too, is set for a trip to the Far East. His power allowed him to bust through 35 tackle attempts and make 15 offloads in 14 Super Rugby games, while the other wing regular last season, Dyantyi, finished the Super Rugby campaign with 28 tackle busts and 13 line breaks.
The Lions man’s 93 runs made 932m for his team and he, too, goes into the Test season in good form. Erasmus has some seriously tough decisions to make in the coming weeks and settling on the best men to “wing it” in Japan seems like the hardest of them all.
The four Tests against New Zealand, Australia and Argentina (twice) before the Boks boss finalises his squad will serve as trials for these men hoping for a ticket to Japan.@jacq_west