Boks target Aussies as stepping stones



There’s an experimental feel to the opening Rugby Championship round this weekend.

The tournament will be cut in half, as has become the custom in World Cup years, leaving each side to play the others only once. With all eyes on September’s spectacle, those three matches are vital preparation and an opportunity to knock out any persisting dents.

At least that’s the plan. Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has admitted that he will be rolling out the B teamers against Australia on Saturday. That takes some of the shine off the fact that, with eight starters, this will be the largest number of black players ever trotting out in the green and gold. Much of the primary squad has travelled to New Zealand, where they will acclimatise for the showing against the world champions.

It’s easy to see Erasmus’s logic. Ludicrous travel requirements aside, there’s hardly a better gauge of how far the team has come than an All Blacks Test in Wellington. Should a few weeks of rest and preparation translate into a good performance, then all of a sudden the Boks will gallop into the World Cup — in which this fixture is their first match-up — with a healthy surge of momentum. After a disappointing season for South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises, the value of recouping morale as a collective can’t be underestimated.

“I can give the assurance that Saturday’s team will be as determined and motivated as would be the case against the All Blacks,” centre Jesse Kriel nonetheless insisted this week.

“Our management has a clear-cut plan for the Championship progressing into the World Cup. This weekend is the first part of that plan. We want to win the Championship and that starts this weekend. I don’t think the team is experimental at all. It is the best guys for this weekend that will take on Australia.”

Platitude or not, the line-up shifts leave the door of opportunity ajar, especially for scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies. Faf de Klerk’s No 9 jersey has been annoyingly difficult to fill and an impressive first international cap could see Jantjies in with a shot of being the first off the bench. Judging by the noises coming from the coaching staff, they expect just that. Nippy and unafraid of throwing in his own tackles, the 23-year-old was at the heart of everything good the Stormers did this season. (Admittedly this was not a lot.)

Rynhardt Elstadt likewise will make his Test debut at Ellis Park. Toulouse’s 29-year-old utility forward man seemed to float out of the blue when he landed on Erasmus’s radar earlier this year.

Capable of filling in on either flank or at lock, the hope is that Elstadt could provide cover for Siya Kolisi on the openside.

The captain himself will miss the opener thanks to a knee injury. Fortunately for the Boks, the news out of the pack improves from there. Eben Etzebeth, established as part of the leadership core, takes the reins. He overcomes minor scares and is joined by the long-suffering Lood de Jager and Steph du Toit.

In the backline, Jesse Kriel fills the vice-captaincy role and Elton Jantjies gets a runout at flyhalf. Steven Kitshoff, Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux are among the notables who join De Klerk on an early flight to Wellington.

Australia have similarly chosen to spend two weeks in Johannesburg to adapt to the highveld altitude. The decision resulted in a brush with death — if international headlines are to be believed. The 135kg prop Taniela Tupou had his phone snatched out of his hands in Sandton.

“I thought: ‘Whoa, anything can happen here,’ but it has definitely brought us closer as a group,” teammate Jordan Uelese said.

“If they can steal a phone off one of the biggest guys in our team, you can steal off anyone.”

The Wallabies should have more serious on-pitch concerns. They, more than anyone, arguably need to establish a solid foundation heading into the World Cup because there’s a real danger they could slip to the bottom rungs of the southern hemisphere.

After a superb Super Rugby campaign, the Argentina squad — which is basically interchangeable with the Jaguares — will have legitimate hopes of making their presence felt in both forthcoming tournaments.

With one of the best kicking games in the world, it’s not hard to see them surpassing Australia or even South Africa in the standings this year. If they do, it will be only the second time they’ve avoided the wooden spoon since they joined to form the Tri-Nations’ successor in 2012.

The first came in 2015 when Heyneke Meyer failed to push his players to a win under the shadow of an impending World Cup. Erasmus has promised things will be different this time. He has a tough balancing act but how it plays out over the next two weekends may well set the tone for the next three months.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

Related stories

Amakhosi chasing proud history

Kaizer Chiefs top the table in their 50th year, but there are some worrying mishaps that must be stamped out if they are to keep it that way

Cricket SA’s myopic new hierarchy

The English Tests have offered some promising performances but there’s little reason to be excited about the future of the Proteas

How Schalk Brits built his fantasy

The Springbok hooker built his long career on his ability to adapt — and will likely do so again now that he’s finally retired from rugby

Building a legacy in disloyal times

For the first time in recent memory the Mamelodi Sundowns coach looks a bit rocky. With a new contract looming, can he reverse the tide?

Sport audit 2019: How SA’s national rugby team performed

The highlight of South Africa's year was the Springboks Rugby World Cup victory

Another board member walks away from CSA

Jack Madiseng says moral circumstances have forced him out after the board failed to heed calls to resign

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Air pollution link in 15% of global Covid-19 deaths

Researchers have found that, because ambient fine particulate air pollution aggravates comorbidities, it could play a factor in coronavirus fatalities

Mboweni plans to freeze public sector wage increases for the...

The mid-term budget policy statement delivered by the finance minister proposes cutting all non-interest spending by R300-billion.

SAA to receive R10.5-billion government bailout after all

Several struggling state-owned entities received extra funds after the medium term budget policy speech

BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

The compact SUV is so at home with its new badge that’s it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday