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The Springbok side effects of Lions and Sharks exits

OPINION: The Springboks look set to benefit from the Sharks and Lions’ exit from the United Rugby Championship, as preparations for the one-off Test against Wales gather momentum.

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Bok coach Rassie Erasmus and his lieutenants couldn’t have asked for a more challenging start to the new four-year Test cycle.

A significant number of players who won the 2023 World Cup in France will be unavailable for the season-opener against Wales on June 22.

The game at Twickenham falls outside of the international window, and as a result, the Boks based at European clubs will be unavailable for selection.

Players who feature in the URC Final, which will be played on the same day as the one-off against Wales, will also miss out on the chance to represent their country.

Erasmus has been aware of this scenario since the fixture list was confirmed a couple of months ago and has already taken steps to prepare a younger, less experienced team via a series of national alignment camps.

But now that the Lions and the Sharks have bowed out of the play-off race, Erasmus will have access to those players as preparations for the new Test season gather momentum.

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The Bok coach will have to wait and see whether the Bulls or Stormers players advance to the URC Final or if they provide the national squad with further options ahead of that clash at Twickenham (more on the URC playoff permutations and their bearing on the Boks in a minute).

For now, he will know that the best players from the Sharks and Lions, as well as the nine Boks returning from Japan, will form the core of the first team of the season.

That Japanese contingent includes a host of regular starters.

Cheslin Kolbe, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende and Faf de Klerk will provide some stability in the backline, while Kwagga Smith, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert and Malcolm Marx will power the pack.

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It remains to be seen whether Lood de Jager will feature, after the lock sustained a shoulder injury in the recent Japan League One Final.

Now add a layer of Sharks and Lions stars, and a team begins to take shape.

(Continue below …)

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World Cup-winners such as Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonambi, Vincent Koch, Eben Etzebeth, Jaden Hendrikse, Grant Williams, Makazole Mapimpi should all be available (Lukhanyo Am will miss out due to injury), along with Ntuthuko Mchunu, Aphelele Fassi, Siya Masuku and Phepsi Buthelezi could be used to plug a few gaps.

Erasmus has already worked with a clutch of Lions players at the recent alignment camps.

Henco van Wyk (injury) and Ruan Venter (suspension) will miss out, and the extent of Sanele Nohamba’s concussion in the loss to the Stormers at the weekend is yet to be confirmed.

If available, Nohamba will certainly add value to the national group, along with Jordan Hendrikse, Quan Horn and Morné van den Berg.

When you run through that list of names, you tend to believe that South Africa will be alright against Wales.

Nevertheless, the team that takes the field at Twickenham in three weeks’ time will be a far cry from first-choice, given that so many of the best players in Europe and at the Bulls and Stormers will be unavailable due to URC commitments.

In some positions, Erasmus will be forced to field third -or fourth-choice options, and back uncapped players.

Leicester-based flyhalf Handré Pollard will be unavailable, while Manie Libbok could well be in action for the Stormers that weekend. Damian Willemse, the other player to feature at No.10 for the Boks in recent seasons, has been ruled out of the upcoming Tests due to finger surgery.

The upshot is that a debutant could wear the No.10 jersey in the first match of the four-year cycle.

Until recently, Jordan Hendrikse and Nohamba had been touted as options, on the back of their impressive performances for the Lions.

More recently, Siya Masuku has emerged as a strong candidate, after guiding the Sharks to a Challenge Cup title.

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The game management and nerveless goal-kicking of the 27-year-old was often the difference in the latter stages of that European campaign, and ultimately earned the Sharks a ticket back to the all-important Champions Cup.

The Lions and Sharks will not feature in the upcoming URC play-offs, and the franchises’ loss is the national side’s gain.

Erasmus and company will have the chance to work extensively with Hendrikse and Masuku over the next few weeks, and will have the chance to make an informed decision regarding who should start against Wales.

The Bok coach faces another big call at No.8.

Jasper Wiese has copped a lengthy suspension and won’t be back until the double-header against New Zealand in September.

If the Bulls and Stormers go all the way to the URC Final, then the likes of Evan Roos, Elrigh Louw and Cameron Hanekom won’t be available either.

Kwagga Smith, who has started at No.8 at Test level before and plays there regularly for his club in Japan, may well be asked to fill the gap.

But with an eye to the upcoming series against Ireland, and to the more distant future, Erasmus may want access to a long-term option sooner rather than later.

Of the two South African franchises left in the tournament, the Bulls are best placed to advance to the decider.

Jake White’s charges have been dominant at Loftus Versfeld this season, and you’d expect them to see off Benetton in the upcoming quarterfinal.

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They may also have the edge against a full-strength Leinster in a possible semifinal, given that the Irish side would have to travel to South Africa and face the additional challenge of competing at altitude.

Whisper it, but if Munster slips up in the coming weeks, the Bulls could well end up hosting the URC Final at Loftus.

How great would it be to see the Stormers beating the odds and progressing to another all-South Africa Final?

The answer to that question depends on whether you’re looking at that match in isolation, or in relation to the Test staged at Twickenham on the same day,

If the Bulls go all the way to the Final, Erasmus will have to make do without Boks such as Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie, Marco van Staden, Ruan Nortje, Wilco Louw, Gerhard Steenekamp as well as hot prospects like Hanekom, Mpilo Gumede and Johan Grobbelaar.

Similarly, if the Stormers advance, then the Boks will be without a long list of players that includes Libbok, Roos, Salmaan Moerat, Herschel Jantjies, Neethling Fouché, BJ Dixon, Ruben van Heerden, Andre-Hugo Venter, Suleiman Hartzenberg, and Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu.

All of the players mentioned above have attended at least one national planning camp in recent months.

Another Bulls-Stormers Final would amount to a big win for South African rugby.

On the other hand, the national side would lose out on the opportunity to field a number of experienced regulars as well as a clutch of promising stars in a big Test.

The absence of these players will provide South African rugby with it’s greatest test of depth, and that should benefit the Boks in the long run.

At the very least, it seems likely that one of the up-and-coming flyhalves will get their shot in the green and gold.

Win or lose at Twickenham, Erasmus looks set to receive some valuable answers regarding the aptitude of some of the younger players.

@rugby365com

Watch the exclusive reveal-all episode of Walk the Talk with Ardie Savea as he chats to Jim Hamilton about the RWC 2023 experience, life in Japan, playing for the All Blacks and what the future holds. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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