Boks: Why we CAN feel optimistic

Eben Etzebeth (Getty)
Eben Etzebeth (Getty)

Cape Town - Half a dozen personnel changes to your starting line-up from one Test to the next ... it’s going to ruffle feathers. And it has.

The Springbok team unveiled by coach Rassie Erasmus this week for Saturday’s Rugby Championship meeting with Australia in Brisbane (12:00 SA time) does little to suggest stability reigns gloriously right now - although he has reminded of the bigger-picture needs in terms of expanding his depth levels with the 2019 World Cup in mind.

Nevertheless, with the Boks’ win record this year standing at a precarious 50 percent after six matches and Erasmus himself having earlier described the Suncorp Stadium date as a “must win” affair, the sweeping alterations he’s made have divided the rugby public and pundits alike.

You get the sense that sentiment back home became even less inclined toward anticipating a Bok win - it would represent their first in Australia since 2013 - once the SA selection hand was revealed on Thursday.

But perhaps we should also be wary of being too downbeat about the Boks’ chances against similarly delicate foes this weekend.

I have already penned my own fear that Erasmus has been a little extreme in his bag-shake after the Mendoza mauling from Argentina, but it is also not as though he can easily be accused of turning too “fruitcake”, if you like, in his team assembly.

For one striking feature of the starting side - backed up by certain notably revered names on the bench - is that positional combinations, for the most part, look comfortingly familiar.

If enough of them click, these Boks will be at the races - and then some, even? - on Saturday.

Here’s a look, department by department, at the run-on Springbok team and why the players shouldn’t have reason to feel too foreign to each other ...

The back three

No major surprises here, despite the ongoing knowledge (Wallaby coach Michael Cheika won’t have overlooked it, you can be sure!) that the trio aren’t yet the full deck of cards in defensive security and alignment.

Erasmus, for the third Test in a row, has named the same alliance: scheming, seasoned Willie le Roux at fullback and with developing predators Makazole Mapimpi (fully fit again after his shortened outing in Mendoza) and Aphiwe Dyantyi in the wide slots.

After the dense fog surrounding this area in the short Allister Coetzee era, the back three does seem to be coming together, especially as an attacking force.

The midfield

All change here, with the (two-Test) Am-Esterhuizen alliance from the Sharks now dumped completely from the match-day 23 at Suncorp.

But the one assurance you automatically get through the restoration of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel in midfield is that - at best, mind - they have already shown they are a pleasingly vibrant and balanced pairing at international level even if their franchise bases are different.

They were identified as a combo during Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as head coach, and first blooded as a unit on Kriel’s Test debut in a narrow 24-20 reverse to the Wallabies in the very same Brisbane in July 2015.

Several more outings together have occurred subsequently, although interrupted at varying stages because of De Allende’s injury setbacks, and they should have no problem reconnecting here.

The halfback pairing

Whether it was the right thing to go back to gifted but bewilderingly inconsistent Elton Jantjies at flyhalf will be put to a searching Test on Saturday - especially as a wet field after likely daytime rain is anticipated, and those certainly aren’t ideal “Jantjies conditions”.

The one comfort is that the pivot finds himself paired with Faf de Klerk as his scrumhalf, and they were key components of the Lions’ offensive plans during an often productive four-year period before De Klerk switched base to Sale Sharks in 2017.

The loosies

The Siya Kolisi shuffle between the two flank berths goes on - it is a complex issue, and often dependent on who he is teamed up with as the loose trio - but at least he is no stranger at all to Warren Whiteley or Stormers colleague Pieter-Steph du Toit, now back as a deserved starter at No 7.

They have not yet begun a Test match as the specific loosie combination, especially as Du Toit so often doubles as a lock, but will have had plenty of broader squad time getting to know each other’s strengths and habits.

The locks

The Eben Etzebeth-Franco Mostert firm may have tasted defeat in the Mendoza comeuppance a couple of weeks ago – remember, the former is still feeling his way back after a long absence from all rugby – but in 2017 they were developing into a successful combination.

They had a sequence of five victories in a row as the lock alliance (the 3-0 home series whitewash of France, successive wins against Argentina) before the run was disturbed in a loss to the All Blacks in New Zealand and then a Bloemfontein stalemate against the Wallabies.

But this Saturday will nevertheless be their healthy ninth game in tandem; expect both to hike own standards significantly from the South American ordeal ...

The front row

Eyebrows have been especially raised over the sacrifice of veteran loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira and hulking hooker Malcolm Marx - both now substitutes - for Brisbane, considering that the Mendoza setback had represented their first genuinely “bad” games in some time, and they were hardly alone.

But there may also be some method to any perceived madness by Erasmus in that regard: for one thing, both men ought to enter the second-half fray (if not required before) breathing fire.

Another cause for hope of the Boks still dominating the hottest part of the engine room on Saturday is that chosen three Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe have their all-Stormers affiliations as potential, synergy-based assets to the Bok cause at Suncorp.

Kitshoff thoroughly deserves a further stab at starting after being something of a “supersub” for the overwhelming majority of his Test career so far (just two of his 29 Tests in the No 1 rather than No 17 jersey, and none yet this year).

Mbonambi, too, while not possessing the same, unique levels of brawn and stealing prowess as Marx, had been a pleasing feature of the Test series victory over England in June and is a true tiger - not to mention solid all-rounder as a hooker - in his own right.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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