Cape Town - Expect Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus to lean very heavily toward the personnel who did duty in the toughest game of the season on paper so far – against the All Blacks in Wellington - when he reveals on Tuesday his side to tackle Japan in Saitama.
Friday’s Test (12:15 SA time) is the last before the Boks, just over a fortnight later, open their World Cup account against the New Zealanders at Yokohama, and it is fully expected that the team he anticipates beginning that massive date will be given the earlier clash, en masse, as a cobwebs-eliminator.
Erasmus is likely to be thinking that if the men he will entrust renewed confidence in could earn that gallant 16-16 outcome at the Cake Tin back on July 27, they have an even better chance of knocking over the Webb Ellis Cup-holders in more neutral Yokohama on September 21.
He has shown a steady, common sense-laden hand in selection terms so far in 2019, which greatly helped engineer the Rugby Championship title triumph, so shocks should be kept to a minimum (or even virtually zero, really?) when he names the match-day combo for the crack at avenging the RWC 2015 debacle against the Brave Blossoms.
The Bok mastermind tellingly started with a dozen of the same players for each of the Wellington and Salta (against Argentina) clashes during the Championship, in which the pleasing 46-13 romp at the expense of the Pumas sealed the trophy.
Eleven of that 12 may well remain unaltered for Friday’s match, the exception being fit-again captain Siya Kolisi’s fairly logical return at open-side flank for still-inexperienced Kwagga Smith.
Erasmus’s lone, rotation-based “fiddling” between the trips to New Zealand and Argentina was to field different front rows each time.
Was it a pointer to his current thinking in pecking-order terms, between a pair of impressive trios, that the starters against the World Cup champions were Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe … so really considered the incumbents?
It’s a highly debatable issue, not least because, in Salta, the more visibly destructive and energetic collective showing came from Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane.
All three were outstanding that day, and the stocky tighthead prop Nyakane particularly forceful at the set-piece against hapless direct opponent Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, repeatedly bent backwards over the course of his nightmarish 49 minutes against the fired-up Bulls man.
But it is also common knowledge that the Pumas’ days of the famed bajada scrum weapon belong more firmly in the annals; the All Blacks are a superior scrumming unit and that is one justification for Erasmus to stick with the Kitshoff-Marx-Malherbe alliance if, indeed, he considers them fractionally his premier crew.
Still, all three - if chosen - will know they are under intense pressure not to “idle” against Japan, given the calibre of stocks immediately below them.
Malherbe, it is probably safe to venture, will come under the closest scrutiny to be suitably workmanlike both as tighthead anchorman and in a general-play capacity on Friday, given Nyakane’s increasingly celebrated conversion to what used to be his “wrong” side of the engine room.
If the 28-year-old Stormers customer is moderate, at best, against the relative minnows, he may yet find himself relegated to the bench (or even eclipsed there, by Vincent Koch) for the All Blacks clash.
In Malherbe’s favour, it might be submitted, is that he has far greater experience than Nyakane does of starting Test matches: his 31 caps since 2013 have included 24 in the frontline No 3 jersey - 77 percent.
By contrast Nyakane, whether he likes it or not, has developed more of a reputation as a “supersub”: as many as 36 of his 40 Test appearances have come in that capacity.
But his true value to the cause has become increasingly apparent this year.
Malherbe will know it, and probably be spurred into acting accordingly … if he does retain first-choice status for the time being.
*Likely Bok starting XV against Japan:
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
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