A truncated version of this year’s Rugby Championship kicks off in Johannesburg this Saturday with two experimental teams vying for the first points on offer.
The hosts will be blooding some new faces whilst also welcoming some blasts from the past to give them the opportunity to rekindle their relationships with the Springbok Shirt.
The Wallabies find themselves in a very similar situation with Michael Cheika selecting some surprising players, both old and new.
Rassie Erasmus claims to have formulated a plan to win this year’s Rugby Championship whilst using a raft of players in order to give them a chance of booking their flight to Japan in September.
Some of Erasmus’ squad have already caught flights to New Zealand to start the preparation for the game against the current World Champions.
Eben Etzebeth will lead the team in the absence of Siya Kolisi, who has been ruled out due to his long term knee injury.
The two debutants involved are Rynhardt Eltstadt and Herschel Jantjies who start on the flank and at scrumhalf respectively.
Prop, Lizo Gqoboka is also set to gain his first cap from the bench.
That bench is littered with experience and also some familiar faces from Springbok squads of the past.
Marcell Coetzee returns after nearly four years out of the Green and Gold shirt, as does Cobus Reinach after the same amount of time away from the international test arena.
The name that has drawn the largest reaction though, is that of Frans Steyn. Still only aged 32, Steyn was part of the team that won the 2007 Rugby World Cup and makes his first appearance in a Bok shirt since 2017.
The Green and Gold Number 8 shirt will have a new incumbent on Saturday when Isi Naisarani makes his debut. The Melbourne Rebels back rower moved to Australia from Fiji in 2014 but now will be looking to make his mark in his adopted country’s shirt.
Another name that could make a surprising debut is Harry Johnson-Holmes. The young Waratah only joined the squad late on Wednesday evening as injury cover but make will his front row debut from the bench.
The two older faces looking to make their way back into Michael Cheika’s thoughts for the World Cup are Nic White and the controversial James Slipper.
White, now with the Exeter Chiefs in the English Premiership, starts at scrumhalf, nearly four years since his last appearance in a Wallaby shirt whilst Slipper, after many high-profile personal setbacks in the last few years, starts for the first time since 2016 in the front row.
Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani will partner each other in the centres to create a destructive duo.
The likelihood is that this won’t be the most flowing games of rugby but more a battle of attrition as new faces and old try and form combinations for the first time together.
In the pack, it looks like it is the hosts that have the edge. James Slipper and Sekope Kepu do have 189 Caps between them but the experience coming off their bench in the closing stages is far inferior to what South Africa have to offer.
The Bok starting props, Tendai Mtawarira and Trevor Nyakane, also have over 140 caps between them and although their front rowers on the bench may numerically have a small number of caps between them and include a debutant, two of their names are Vincent Koch and Schalk Brits. These two vastly experienced war horses give the home team an 80-minute front row that won’t be taking a backward step at any time.
Erasmus will be pleased that he can call upon second rows, Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth again as his first-choice partnership, whilst in the back row, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Francois Louw will be using their own canniness and guile to neutralise Michael Hooper at the breakdown.
Where Australia may have the edge is in the centres. Kuridrani and Kerevi have proven time and time again just how much they can influence a game in a positive manner and really make a team’s gain line defence withdraw onto the back foot. For these two to have the influence that Cheika will be asking of them, they will need quick, clean ball to work with and that is where I think the Australians may struggle.
South Africa’s potential downfall may be the combination at 9 and 10. The two Jantjies, Herschel and Elton will be pairing up for the first time as half backs and if they struggle to release the rapid back three of the Springboks then that will be one seriously dangerous attacking weapon neutralised by the Aussies.
If things don’t go Elton’s way then he tends to drop back off the gain line and kick aimlessly for territory. With Tom Banks at the back for Australia, this is something that plays into the visitor’s hands. The Australian back three are an industrious trio that like to look for work and make the hard yards after the metres gained by their inside team-mates but Banks can also attack from anywhere and when at full steam, he’s a tricky man to stop.
The men in Gold have a stronger bench beyond the front row and that could play a significant part towards the end of the game but I feel that they may be chasing this game by that stage.
Erasmus’ charges should dominate enough up front to get the territory and possession for their exciting backline to cause damage and take the first game of the Championship.
SOUTH AFRICA BY 12