Cape Town – The squad announcement hype is over, as South Africa confirmed on Monday probably their least controversial, 31-strong group yet for a Rugby World Cup.
So attention turns, with rather deeper fascination, to exactly which players Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus regards as his first XV for the more crucial matches at the Japanese-hosted event shortly.
We will get an educative idea of that next week, when he is expected to name his side for the last pre-RWC Test against the host nation themselves on September 6: he has indicated (though he may still allow himself a little room for flexibility in certain borderline cases) that it will be made up of his best possible resources.
That makes sense as it will be a last tune-up opportunity for the frontline troops ahead of the huge, opening pool meeting with champions New Zealand just over two weeks later in Yokohama.
Erasmus intends to field his most obviously premier side against the All Blacks and Six Nations participants Italy, while giving opportunities to others in the squad in the less hazardous group assignments, on paper, against Namibia and Canada.
His planning during the currently unbeaten 2019 season has been admirably thorough, to the point that the majority of berths in his most favoured XV seem pretty “locked in”.
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that Erasmus threw the majority of his best resources at two specific dates thus far: the Wellington tussle with NZ (drawn 16-16) and the Rugby Championship-clinching 46-13 triumph over Argentina in Salta.
Twelve players began both of those contests, tending to suggest they are fairly top of mind for current red-letter tussles: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth.
The one big difference was that Erasmus fielded completely different front rows, presumably with freshness/rotational issues in mind, for the pair of dates on different continents: Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe in the Cake Tin, and then a switch to Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane in Argentina.
The last-named trio were profoundly destructive against the Pumas (Nyakane especially to the scrummaging fore at tighthead) arguably to the point that all of them may earn the follow-up nod against Japan.
But it will still be a close-run thing, with debate raging around whether the gritty Mbonambi deserves to eclipse the SA Rugby Player of the Year from two years ago, heavyweight physical presence Marx, to the hooker berth and similarly Mtawarira prevail over Kitshoff at No 1.
Put it this way: all six should get generous time on the park against the Japanese, regardless of whether as starters or substitute “finishers” … and be under constructive pressure to shine and seek to nail down premier status against the All Blacks.
But some other berths are also not quite cut and dried – in two cases as a result of progressively improving fitness of players who had started the international season later than others due to rehabilitation from longish-term injuries.
That is applicable to open-side flank and RWC squad captain Siya Kolisi, and No 5 lock Lood de Jager.
The former may well have done enough on comeback against Argentina in the follow-up tussle at Loftus to recapture the No 6 shirt immediately from Kwagga Smith in Japan, while De Jager has been a first-choice as the middle-of-lineout Bok lock before, so is presumably applying renewed pressure to (consistently workaholic, mind) incumbent Franco Mostert.
Perhaps the only other area of some, immediate contention is which of three confident, in-form wings – Kolbe, S’bu Nkosi and Mapimpi – will fit into the two starting slots.
As already discussed on Sport24, Kolbe (twice, Wellington and Salta) and Nkosi (once, at Loftus) have genuinely wowed on the right in recent weeks, giving rise to at least the possibility that versatile back-three factor Kolbe could do justice to the left-wing berth if entrusted with it at the expense of Mapimpi.
Whether Erasmus will be prepared to “trial” that against Japan remains to be seen; he may be more inclined to stick with Mapimpi’s more advanced positional instincts for No 11 on both defence and attack and make the desperately hard choice between the other two on the right.
While mindful of the neck-and-neck situation in some areas, perhaps this will be the Springbok starting XV against Japan: 15 Le Roux, 14 Kolbe, 13 Am, 12 De Allende, 11 Mapimpi, 10 Pollard, 9 De Klerk, 8 Vermeulen, 7 Du Toit, 6 Kolisi (capt), 5 Mostert, 4 Etzebeth, 3 Nyakane, 2 Marx, 1 Mtawarira
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