Wed, 11 Dec 2019

Bok team: Danger it could run out of puff

News24
18 Jul 2019, 04:10 GMT+10

Cape Town - The good thing about the experimental Springbok team named on Wednesday for their opening Test of the 2019 season is that it boasts a strong enough spine to potentially still get the job done against Australia in Johannesburg on Saturday (17:05).

In that respect, it looks a lot less vulnerable than the equivalent Bok line-up last year, when they began the Rassie Erasmus head-coaching tenure with a disappointing 22-20 defeat to Wales on a slippery surface in Washington DC - albeit a match which drew a modest expatriate crowd and barely deserved Test status.

That side was particularly fragile in terms of both rawness of combinations and staffing as a whole, whereas the one revealed for this Rugby Championship opener much closer to home, at oft-favoured venue of Ellis Park, is less marked by greenhorns - only two debutants in scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies and flanker Rynhardt Elstadt - and handily features some of the most streetwise current Boks imaginable, including Tendai Mtawarira and acting captain Eben Etzebeth.

In senior figures like those, lies rich potential for more callow members of the team to rally behind and feel less intimidated by the task against the Wallabies.

That is despite mastermind Erasmus sticking to his already-stated intention to cocoon around 15 senior players, sending them instead across the Indian Ocean in altogether more decent time to prepare for the challenge of the world-champion All Blacks just one week further ahead.

So a comeuppance for this Saturday's more hastily assembled outfit wouldn't be the end of the world even if victory would be an infinitely more pleasing outcome, simultaneously confirming a solid assembly of genuine depth in World Cup year.

A lot of the starting XV at very least know their team-mates' playing styles, strengths and weaknesses pretty well from regular, extended squad involvement with the national cause: there are hardly any "kids" in this particular team.

Even the first-cap Elstadt, 29, shouldn't have a rabbit-in-headlights look about him on Saturday as he was a tough-as-teak customer for the Stormers for several seasons before picking up further wisdom abroad with his clearly successful switch to Toulouse in 2017.

The side even includes one combination who began that debatable Washington DC exercise a year ago, the midfield duo of Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel, both of whom should be on a mission to pressure as much as possible the likely first-choice alliance in the early part of the Test campaign, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am.

Certainly on paper, this Bok pack contains enough known oomph to be able to repel a Wallaby charge at a ground that has been unkind to the visitors for several decades.

Of greater concern, maybe, will be its ability to last the pace despite the obvious - though slightly over-rated, nowadays? - advantages of playing at high altitude.

Several players selected have had unsatisfactorily little rugby in recent weeks and suddenly starting a Test against traditionally frontline foes, especially if the Aussies give it the kitchen sink, is no easy ask.

The phenomenon applies in the tight five, for instance, to Mtawarira, who sat out substantial tracts of Super Rugby for the Sharks through injury, as well as both locks, Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, despite their glowing reputations.

Stormers hard man Etzebeth had another very disrupted (and his final) season for the Cape franchise, while De Jager had been absent from the Bulls' plans for months until resurfacing for 50 minutes of a Currie Cup match against Western Province at Newlands just last Saturday - even if he came through quite well.

As much as the balance of the loose trio - featuring Francois Louw at his slightly less familiar No 8 and Elstadt and another recently-rehabbed customer in Pieter-Steph du Toit on the sides of the scrum - will come under sharp scrutiny, keep in mind that the two Euro-based players in it also come out of a few weeks of the off-season in northern climes.

Several of the bench elements (Cobus Reinach, Frans Steyn, Marcell Coetzee and Vincent Koch) are in the same boat, although their tasks should be less lung-busting if, for instance, they are only required to give it a healthy tonk for some 20 minutes or fewer after the break ...

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