Rassie faces loose forward 'headache'

Duane Vermeulen (Gallo)
Duane Vermeulen (Gallo)

Cape Town - Kwagga Smith's decision to skip the Commonwealth Games with the Blitzboks this year in the hope of securing a place with Springbok squad is big news.

While it is an obvious blow to the national Sevens side in their efforts to win gold in Australia, Smith has now clearly stated where his priorities lie. 

He, like many others, wants to represent the Springboks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

What it does mean, though, is that Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has yet another loose forward to consider when he goes about identifying his strongest XV for June’s series against Eddie Jones' England. 

A loose forward himself in his playing days, Erasmus now has numerous options in that department. 

While there are tough selections everywhere - Elton Jantjies v Handre Pollard v Robert du Preez for the No 10 jersey, for example - the different combinations on offer in the back row make that a far more intricate task for Erasmus. 

Warren Whiteley is currently out injured, but given that he was the first player to be secured on a national contract by Erasmus, one would expect him to be the first-choice No 8 while he is also the front-runner to captain the Boks in 2018. 

Whiteley, in the two full Super Rugby matches he has played this season, has been superb. 

Duane Vermeulen, though, is understood to still be part of the Springbok plans.

Whiteley's injury last year meant that there was no issue in bringing Vermeulen back into the Bok side once available, but things are likely to be very different in 2018. 

Vermeulen could potentially operate in the No 7 jersey, but who Erasmus wants at the back of his scrum will be largely dictated by how he wants to play. 

If Erasmus wants physical loose forwards who can crash their way over the gain line and compete on the ground, then Vermeulen is a safe bet. But, if he wants his loosies to provide attacking options in the wide channels and get involved with the backs, then Whiteley emerges as the front-runner. 

Erasmus is also extremely well-stocked at flank, and on both sides of the scrum. 

Siya Kolisi is in strong shape currently, carrying on from his stellar year in 2017. He, too, is versatile and can play on both flanks and it is hard to see the Erasmus era starting without the Stormers captain heavily involved. 

There are a host of other players who will think are in the running. Erasmus, though, cannot pick them all. 

Whether or not Francois Louw, for example, still has a Springbok future is unclear at this stage. Louw is a veteran of 57 Tests and he has always been vocal on his desire to play for the Boks, despite being based overseas. He provides an element of pedigree that could be more than useful as the Boks look to wipe the slate clean, but Erasmus must also look to the future. 

Sikhumbuzo Notshe is a player who Erasmus is reportedly a huge fan of, and he is certainly one of the more attacking options that the coach has. 

The Du Preez twins - Jean-Luc and Dan - are both tipped for bright Bok futures. Jean-Luc has just returned from injury and will have more than enough time to prove his worth in Super Rugby before June, while Dan should be back from a shoulder strain within the next two weeks. 

The PRO14 is hardly the most glamourous tournament from a South African perspective, but a pair of Cheetahs loose forwards in the form of Uzair Cassiem and Oupa Mohoje will also be hoping to put their hands up before June. 

Both players featured under Allister Coetzee over 2016 and 2017, but the fact that they are no longer playing Super Rugby could count against them. 

It also remains to be seen how Erasmus feels about employing specialist locks in the loose trio. 

Pieter-Steph du Toit found himself shifted to the side of the scrum towards the end of the Coetzee era in a move that worked, while more recently the Lions have opted to employ Bok second rower Franco Mostert in the No 7 jersey.

The Mostert decision is believed to have come at the request of Erasmus, who wanted to see how the 27-year-old could operate in a loose forward capacity. 

Early signs have been encouraging, with Mostert's work rate and effectiveness of the ground standing out, but Erasmus would not have seen enough to make an informed decision yet.

If everyone is fit, a Whiteley, Vermeulen, Kolisi back row emerges as potentially the safest bet, on paper anyway.

Erasmus, though, doesn't come across as the type of coach who will take the safe option. 

Whatever he decides, the path to the Springbok jersey looks a difficult one for the likes of Smith.

Follow @LloydBurnard on Twitter ... 

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