Papier: Boks haven’t turned the ‘page’!

Embrose Papier (Gallo)
Embrose Papier (Gallo)

Cape Town - Rassie Erasmus has restored a welcome semblance of calmness and continuity to Springbok selection.

You might argue that, on Thursday, he really only made two desired changes to the starting line-up for red-letter day against the All Black mean machine in Wellington on Saturday, a stark contrast to the way he shook the bag (six alterations) ahead of the botched assignment against Australia a week earlier.

That is because, had Makazole Mapimpi been fit and available for selection again, the head coach probably would not have been required to shift Jesse Kriel from his midfield berth to emergency right wing (Lukhanyo Am is back to plug the No 13 gap) - the first-choice wing flier’s unfortunate knee injury makes the side collectively look a bit more rearranged than was possibly intended.

But in most senses, Erasmus appears to have limited his “real” changes to just Handre Pollard for Elton Jantjies at flyhalf and Malcolm Marx for Bongi Mbonambi in the hooker’s berth; both switches were heavily anticipated earlier in the week, and the ousted pair do at least retain match-day involvement by being substitutes.

The healthy thing, for the most part, is that Erasmus has shown less twitchiness in compiling his 23 this time, keeping in place several positional combinations despite the deflating Brisbane reverse where impatience and daft option-taking were among the bigger drawbacks.

In a pack that did some admirable, cohesive donkeywork in a first half South Africa really should have bossed by more on the scoreboard at Suncorp Stadium, there’s been a seven-out-of-eight vote of confidence among starters, and I feel that is both a timely and appropriate development.

Restoring the powerhouse Marx, for all his shortcomings in lineout consistency, is also just fielding the more regular first-choice at No 2 again for a date where his muscular endeavour - including in ball-pilfering – will be hugely relied upon.

The forwards, then, have reason to feel in almost all cases that they are Erasmus’s genuine “first-teamers” right now, even taking into account the absence of a handful of injured or unavailable customers.

Now it is simply a question of whether they will reward their coach’s show of faith by at least being highly competitive against New Zealand’s own formidable engine room.

Special interest should surround Steven Kitshoff’s continued hold on the No 1 jersey: in what will be his 31st Test appearance, Wellington will be the long-time “supersub’s” first experience of back-to-back starts for his country.

It is hardly ill-merited, either ... but just how effective will trusty old stalwart Tendai Mtawarira be as the replacement again?

He is, after all, the complete opposite to Kitshoff in Test exposure thus far: the 33-year-old is infinitely more used to being a starter (94 of his 104 games), but also may have adapt faster to “impact” responsibilities now if the burly Stormers player - a longer-term investment at 26, remember - increasingly nails down first-choice rights.

Two players under some pressure to deliver more complete performances among the backline named by Erasmus for the “Cake Tin” are fullback Willie le Roux and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk: for all their valued X-factor, both have been notably sub-standard for two Tests in a row so a third-time-lucky trend will be anticipated by the Bok brains trust.

The one area where Erasmus warrants some especially intense, and deepening scrutiny is his handling of the scrumhalf situation more broadly.

For the national side are doing anything but build comforting depth in the key berth: it’s overwhelmingly been “Faf or bust” so far in 2018, with the back-up man - whoever it’s been - usually granted no more than a token handful of minutes off the bench, if at all.

Last Saturday, for instance, and despite his near-continuous error rate, De Klerk (though he did a couple of sublime things, too) played the full 80 minutes in Brisbane.

That meant the designated reserve that day, Embrose Papier, didn’t even have to remove his tracksuit there, and he has had frighteningly little rugby game-time in general in recent weeks.

The 21-year-old continues to await a proper crack at the job at international level, having earned three caps for very short-lived cameos, and often enough as an emergency wing thus far.

Now he falls right out of the match-day plans, although Erasmus has some justification for elevating the greatly more experienced Ross Cronje to the bench specifically for the taxing All Blacks game.

Rain seems absent from the radar, but a stiff breeze is anticipated at the often windswept venue, and the 29-year-old from the Lions - albeit hardly the nippiest player you’ll ever see at nine - is more street-wise at game management in such conditions on a presumably soft, slowish pitch.

But the time also needs to come (and soon, bearing RWC 2019 in mind) for the Boks to show some sort of tangible confidence in a younger scrumhalf, like Papier.

Right now, he seems a little too much like a “Rudy Paige” for being routinely in the broader SA squad mix yet lamentably idle a great deal of the time ...

Teams:

New Zealand

15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu'inukuafe

Substitutes: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Jack Goodhue, 23 Damian McKenzie

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff

Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Beast Mtawarira, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Cheslin Kolbe

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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