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Springboks' last roll of dice

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Last roll of the dice for Springboks hoping to book a ticket to Japan

The Springboks have just two games left to play between now and their opening fixture of the Rugby World Cup.

Instead of being able to ease into the competition, as has often been the case in the past, the Springboks will line up against the All Blacks in their 99th match to date. It’s then fairly smooth sailing until the quarter-finals, where South Africa will likely line up against one of Ireland, Scotland or Japan.

Naturally, coach Rassie Erasmus will roll out a full-strength side in that first World Cup game. South Africa will take on Japan just two weeks before the competition kicks off – which probably gives the Springboks one last chance to practise combinations. It’s fair to expect a near top-strength side to take the field against the Brave Blossoms.

South Africa won’t want their upcoming rematch with Japan to the same way as it did back in 2015. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

That means there’s just one more opportunity for Erasmus to see his wider squad in action before he decides on the team he will take to the World Cup. Now that the Rugby Championship has been sewn up for 2019, don’t be surprised if he makes sweeping changes to his side to give some of the less prominently featured players opportunities to press their case when South Africa faces Argentina in a re-match of last weekend’s drubbing.

Springboks carrying excess luggage

Erasmus is currently working with a squad of 42, including the three additional players (Scarra Ntubeni, Wilco Louw and Marco van Staden) that he called up earlier this week.

Ten players have featured in all of the Springboks’ tests in 2019: hooker Bongi Mbonambi, props Tendai Mtarawira and Trevor Nyakane, lock Eben Etzebeth, loose forwards Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw, halfback Herschel Jantjies, and three-quarters Jesse Kriel, François Steyn and Makazole Mapimpi.

Five further players, Franco Mostert, Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard, Cheslin Kolbe and Willie le Roux, have clocked up considerable game time in their two matches.

Erasmus will likely look at resting most – if not all – of these players in this weekend’s game, especially given the supersize squad he’s still carrying.

Front row

In the front row, Malcolm Marx is due another start, with just 103 minutes of test football under his belt this year. Erasmus has brought uncapped hooker Scarra Ntabeni into the squad and the Western Province rake may finally be in line for his first test cap after first being called into the Springboks way back in 2016. Ageing Saracen Schalk Brits has also had minimal game time – but questions remain whether Brits still has what it takes to play rugby at the highest level.

Props Thomas du Toit, Lizo Gqoboka, Vincent Kock and the newly added Wilco Louw all had little game time in the Rugby Championship. With Tendai Mtawarira and Trevor Nyakane almost certain to take the week off, there’s room for some experimentation.

The Boks will likely take five props to the World Cup and there are currently eight in the squad. Is it worth giving du Toit and Louw some minutes this weekend if they’re unlikely to be required for World Cup duty?

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Erasmus bring back the starting front row that went toe-to-toe with the All Blacks in Wellington (Kitshoff, Marx and Malherbe) and then injecting Gqoboka, debutant Ntubeni and Kock off the bench. That ensures plenty of players have had ample game time in the lead up to the World Cup, without wasting precious minutes on those that are unlikely to feature.

Locks

One-time captain Eben Etzebeth will likely get a rest against the Pumas. His name has been penned into the World Cup squad for some time now and there’s little to gain by overplaying the abrasive second-rower – even though his Super Rugby campaign was speckled with injuries.

Lood de Jager and RG Snyman appeal as a solid locking duo for the Springboks and have both made fleeting appearances over the Rugby Championship. Specialist Marvin Orie and utility forward Rynhardt Elstadt will battle it out for the bench spot – but neither is likely to travel to Japan.

Loose forwards

The inspirational Siya Kolisi will make his much-awaited return this weekend after missing the last three matches with injury. He will slot in on the flank and could partner Marcell Coetzee, who was a somewhat surprising call-up to the squad. Coetzee clocked just 21 minutes in South Africa’s first match against Australia and is certainly worth a second look.

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Both Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw have shouldered fairly heavy loads at No 8 this year but one of the two could be required to suit up again against the Pumas. The alternative option would be to shift someone like Coetzee to the back of the scrum and bring in another flanker.

One player who won’t feature is Pieter-Steph du Toit. The blindsider was arguably the Springboks’ best player throughout the Rugby Championship, playing the full eighty in all three matches. Du Toit is due a game off this weekend and will likely watch from the stands.

Halves

Herschel Jantjies would have probably been the third-ranked halfback heading into the test season, behind experienced operators Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach. His superfluous performances against Australia and off the bench against New Zealand could have secured him a place in the World Cup squad. If Erasmus only wants to take two halfbacks to the competition then it could be Reinach who is most in danger of missing out. The Saints playmaker could be due for a start this weekend, having made just one 15-minute cameo against the Wallabies.

At first-five, Elton Jantjies will likely take over from Handré Pollard. Jantjies is firmly entrenched as the back-up in the squad and still has a few moments of madness at international level. He had a fantastic game against Australia, mind you, so this weekend’s match would give him the opportunity to show that his days of inconsistency are behind him.

Midfield

There are a number of different possibilities in the midfield. Lukhanyo Am has made an excellent return to test rugby after missing the latter half of 2018 due to a broken arm, and Erasmus may want to retain the resolute defender. Earlier in the season, Erasmus said the Am and Kriel would be rotated through the year, however, and Am has played in the previous two fixtures.

André Esterhuizen and François Steyn have both played just minor roles for the Springboks this year. One of those two will likely miss out on the World Cup, and Steyn’s obvious utility value likely gives him the upper hand. Esterhuizen started against Argentina and had a reasonable game but made a couple of costly kick errors. He also found himself spending 10 minutes in the sin bin due to a careless tackle. This weekend might be Esterhuizen’s last chance to try steal a spot in the future squad – but Erasmus may want to see what Steyn can do with a start under his belt.

Outside backs

Last year’s breakout star, Aphiwe Dyantyi, was invalided from the Rugby Championship due to hamstring strain. There have been no further updates to Dyantyi’s availability since the competition kicked off but it’s unlikely he’ll be available for the match against the Pumas. Couple that with Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi’s heavy workloads the stage could be set to for S’busiso Nkosi and Dillyn Leyds to run out at Loftus Versfeld.

Willie le Roux has spent the past two matches at fullback, so Warrick Gelant could take the field this weekend. The alternative option would be to give Steyn a crack in the 15 jersey – but his three games have all been at inside centre.

There was considerable speculation over whether Erasmus would shuffle his side last weekend or go for the jugular against the Jaguares to ensure a first-ever Rugby Championship title for the Springboks. He opted for the latter and put Argentina to the sword. With the trophy locked up for 2019, the target now moves to the considerably more prestigious Webb Ellis Cup.

With only two matches left to play before rugby’s showcase event kicks off next month, now is the time for South Africa to experiment – so expect a wholly different side to line up against the Pumas on Saturday.

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Last roll of the dice for Springboks hoping to book a ticket to Japan