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.