Boks badly need stability at the back

Cape Town – Another Springbok Test match, another completely different back three.

At least, that is what is anticipated when Rassie Erasmus reveals his team on Thursday for the first Test against England at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.

The expected trio will be Wasps-based Willie le Roux at fullback, and two debutant wings in Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi.

Remarkably, if so, that will also mean a third successive Test match in which the back three has been wholly altered - a situation so fittingly summing up the fluidity and almost unprecedented uncertainty in those berths for the national team.

The volatility really began in the closing Test of 2017, when Allister Coetzee, in what turned out to be the final game of his troubled two-year tenure, fielded Andries Coetzee at fullback, Dillyn Leyds at right wing and introduced Bulls No 15 Warrick Gelant to an international start -- a little out of normal terrain at left wing -- against Wales in Cardiff (a 24-22 defeat).

That season ended with those three spots still very much a subject of worried scrutiny and, on his debut as head coach against the same opponents in Washington DC last Saturday, Erasmus swept clean by naming Curwin Bosch, Makazole Mapimpi and Travis Ismaiel as the trio.

Sharks flier Mapimpi, arguably, was the only one of the three to give a compelling enough impression that he might just belong at the highest level, although it does seem as if slippery Lions wing Dyantyi is instead going to be rewarded with the No 11 jersey against England on the strength of his consistently bubbly Super Rugby form in 2018.

So yes, we are probably going to see a 100 percent new combo … again.

Nine different back-three customers in three Tests: it may very well be a first for the Boks, certainly in post-isolation, but even throughout their history.

Such a violent shaking of the Bok bag in those areas might have seemed unthinkable to those supporters who witnessed, for example, the last time the national side won the World Cup in 2007, and they had such settled personnel as Bryan Habana (very recently retired, and boasting a mammoth 124 Bok caps), JP Pietersen and Percy Montgomery very central to the overall Test mix.

Perhaps the poverty, all too often, of South Africa’s attacking play in recent times - and associated curtailment of wings primarily to kick-chasers and tacklers - has contributed to the marked slip in standards in those areas, and in the last line of defence too.

But whatever the reasons, it is pretty clear that the Boks remain vulnerable in those departments (expect the wily Eddie Jones to have his England charges target them as much as possible in this series) and require at least a semblance of stability with some urgency.

Who knows how the expected combo will fare in Johannesburg?

Dyantyi and Nkosi will at least be largely unknown factors to the English – though Jones and company will have studied Super Rugby footage with some zeal – and the latter, of the whole back three, probably best ticks the box for physical sturdiness.

That is something the Boks have lacked, often to their cost, in those jerseys in recent seasons and it has been a contributor to too-frequent defensive brittleness.

Nobody is suggesting that Nos 11, 14 and 15 should be universally built like brick outhouses, but it also helps these days if at least one or two are.

Apart from his strength on his feet, the 22-year-old Nkosi (youngest of Saturday’s likely back three) has clearly worked enormously hard this year on his contesting and pouching of high balls – he has encouragingly claimed a few for the Sharks when under pressure from two or three opponents and not exactly favourite to win out.

But with both Nkosi and the lightning-off-the-mark Dyantyi sporting a grand total of zero caps ahead of Saturday, there will be a strong onus on an immeasurably more experienced fullback to help shepherd them through their expected debuts.

And that responsibility falls on Le Roux, the 41-cap enigma usually more renowned for his impulsive play (and that’s not meant as a criticism) than the way he fits into any rigid sort of “template”.

It is refreshing in many ways to see his undoubted X-factor back in evidence for the Springboks: he is capable of turning a tight, tense match in an instant.

But we also need to bear in mind that Le Roux has had his fair share of flaky days for the Boks, too - sometimes taking some maddening options, or doing things like crabbing his way toward the touchline and only letting one of his wings run out of space to move effectively in.

The Bok back three this weekend? Maybe we’re still on two wings, a fullback … and a prayer.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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