The boys in green have four massive battles ahead
The differences between the Boks and their opponents are so slim they could just as easily win as lose
A chance meeting with a prominent rugby coach last week naturally led to talk of the Currie Cup final and of the Springboks’ tour to Britain and France.
The knowledgeable insider predicted Josh Stander would start in the Currie Cup Final at flyhalf for Western Province, which he did. He also predicted, rather unhappily, that the Boks would lose four out of four on their coming tour to Britain and France.
I spluttered into my coffee at this seemingly absurd notion. Losing to England, France, Scotland and Wales on consecutive weekends would be a major disaster.
But on closer analysis it does underline how difficult this tour is for Rassie Erasmus and his team.
It’s one of those tours where the differences between the Boks and their opponents are so slim that they could just as easily win four as they could lose them all.
Margins at Test level have become so tight that one bad bounce, one poor decision or one mistake could be the difference between winning and losing. So predicting anything other than four massive battles for the Boks in the coming month is unsafe.
England are without many key players through injury for next weekend’s clash at Twickenham, but similarly the Boks are without several vital individuals because the match falls outside of the official Test window.
Fullback Willie le Roux and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, who were two of the most influential players during the Rugby Championships, will both miss the England match. And perhaps more, as well as De Klerk’s availability for the entire tour, seem to be in doubt.
Scrumhalf is a particularly thorny problem for Erasmus because De Klerk is now so far ahead of the next-best SA choice that his long-term health and form are a matter of national interest.
Erasmus admitted last week that with eight Tests to play before Rugby World Cup 2019, he would like to give De Klerk another eight starts. In a perfect world.
“How much better would he be with that much more experience?” Erasmus asked rhetorically. But in the next breath he conceded that it would be irresponsible to not use this tour to identify the next man in line.
Throughout the season, Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier have played a handful of minutes and we are no closer to knowing if they are actually good enough at Test level. One, or both will be properly examined in the coming weeks and, if they fail, the Boks are likely to suffer as well.
Louis Schreuder’s inclusion in the touring party is also an indicator that Erasmus has no great faith in Papier and Van Zyl.
Schreuder is the more balanced halfback, with a fine kicking game, but also less exciting. Don’t be surprised to see the Sharks Currie Cup–winning skipper catapulted to the front of the scrumhalf queue in De Klerk’s absence.
Similarly, fullback is a head-scratcher because Le Roux looks unchallenged. Damian Willemse is probably the next cab off the rank for the No 15 jersey, but his journey through just about all the backline positions this year leave us no closer to understanding if he really is a world-class fullback.
Where Erasmus has fewer problems is in the pack. His best eight, with Duane Vermeulen back in the squad, is well set and the back-ups are all good enough to start as well.
The forwards are healthy and even peerless on their day, as the All Blacks found out this season. From that base the Boks are always in the game.
Erasmus’ time at Munster gave him a much deeper understanding of northern-hemisphere conditions, while being able to call Johann van Graan at Munster or Johan Ackermann at Gloucester for insight and intelligence will also help.
The respected man across the coffee table had his reasons for believing the Boks will lose all four, but I can’t see it.
Then again, few saw Josh Stander starting the Currie Cup final either.