Cape Town – The Springboks’ European tour-opening match against the Barbarians at Wembley on Saturday looks less and less useful to coach Allister Coetzee the closer we get to the fixture.
Coetzee has bravely spoken up “enjoying having 45 players to work with” at different stages over the course of the next month, as educative to his succession planning.
But by having to pick separate squads for the Baabaas game – minus any overseas-based stars – and then the three-Test portion of the venture starting against England immediately afterwards, his inevitable, short-term anxiety to start winning matches more regularly again after a bumpy year thus far is done few favours.
The itinerary seems fatally the wrong way around, with the Barbarians fixture arguably more suitable as a relaxed season-ender. Whichever way he chooses his starting XV for Wembley, few of Coetzee’s combinations will remain the same against Eddie Jones’s resurgent, ambitious English a week later so it hardly helps to prime his troops for the crunch date of the entire trip.
It is also unfortunate from a Bok perspective that the “easiest” Test on paper, against Italy, comes after rather than before England – there is the danger that the Boks may find some rhythm just as the tour comes to a close, rather than much earlier as is no doubt greatly desired.
Coetzee has a dozen uncapped players in his 30-strong squad for the Barbarians challenge, and especially because of the overlap in certain positions, not all of them will get a gig at Wembley.
The Bok coach will also have to pick as balanced a team as possible, mindful that at least some seasoned personnel will be necessary to ensure they get the tour off on a winning note – all a sizeable lobby of green-and-gold devotees will ultimately care about – and to give certain customers earmarked for “Twickers” seven days later a bit of an acclimatising gallop if he feels it necessary in some instances.
That said, it is also possible that some core Bok tight forwards who are virtual ever-presents, like Eben Etzebeth and Tendai Mtawarira, will not be exposed to the risk of injury in the reasonably lightweight tour “scene-setter” this weekend; this is a likely time for fatigue-related mishap given that the long southern hemisphere season is just about at completion.
Already confirmed as sitting out Wembley is regular captain Adriaan Strauss – Pat Lambie will lead, almost certainly from flyhalf rather than his recent fullback berth – which gives precious extra exposure to younger deputies Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi.
So which novices seem most likely to run out for the Baabaas game, even if the appearance won’t earn them an official cap?
Perhaps the best giveaway, or at least yardstick, is that certain of the raw brigade will be staying on for the more heavyweight portion of the tour, so Coetzee must be dying to see such players in action as quickly as possible.
A personal suspicion, against that backdrop, is that Sergeal Petersen and Francois Venter of the backs, and Jean-Luc du Preez and Roelof Smit among the forwards, will all start this weekend.
Outside centre has been a problem all year, and if cerebral – not to mention in-form -- Cheetahs captain Venter were to excel against the Barbarians, he would automatically earn inside lane, you would think, for No 13 in the huge England meeting.
Similarly, the national side has been labouring during 2016 in the wing berths, and another Currie Cup-winning man from the Bloemfontein set-up, Petersen, can catapult into the Test frame at Twickenham (bear in mind that veteran JP Pietersen hobbled off with a knee problem for Leicester at the weekend) if he is slippery against the Baabaas.
As the only truly specialist open-side flank across either Bok squad for November, Blue Bulls fetcher Smit appears a racing certainty for Wembley, and the rugged ball-carrying qualities of Sharks No 7 Du Preez should also have an opportunity for confirmation on that score.
Du Preez, if he starts, may need an especially rousing performance against the Baabaas as he will be competing with both Oupa Mohoje and stalwart Willem Alberts for the blindside berth from next week.
While pointing out that it is a bit of a pot-luck exercise, given how different a Barbarians game is to a Test, and that Coetzee’s immediate intentions may differ substantially, here is my stab at a Bok line-up, featuring up to seven SA debutants …
Possible Bok starting line-up against Barbarians (team to be announced on Thursday): 15 Ruan Combrinck/Jesse Kriel, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Damian de Allende/Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Pat Lambie (capt), 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Lood de Jager, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
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