VIDEO: Boks' midfield conundrum
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus has been quick to quash any suggestions his side are showing the Wallabies disrespect by rolling out what appears to be a second-string team for the Rugby Championship clash.
“There’s no disrespect to Australia at all,” Erasmus said.
“If we didn’t have the tough draw in terms of travelling with New Zealand and Australia we would have picked the best first choice team for this one and the next.”
Tellingly, Erasmus’ comments seem to imply that the first Springboks team of the year is, by and large, a B team.
It was already expected that a weakened lineup would be rolled out to take on Austalia at Ellis Park, given that match against the All Blacks in Wellington a week later. Looking through the named side, it’s hard to argue with that prediction.
Captain Eben Etzebeth, flank Pieter-Steph du Toit and prop Tendai Mtawarira will likely all be expected to back up against the All Blacks next weekend, but the rest of the side will likely to struggle to earn starts this year against the top teams.
Fans and pundits won’t be overly surprised by any of Erasmus’ picks for the ‘second-string’ side.
The Springboks fielded what was effectively a first XV when they played their final game of 2018 against Wales. Of the side picked to play the Wallabies, only Etzebeth, du Toit and Jesse Kriel also started in the loss to Wales.
Etzebeth and du Toit’s selections this weekend are probably partially dictated by the need to keep some experienced faces in the side, but the more pressing reason is likely due to the lack of game time that those two have accumulated in 2019.
Injuries have limited Etzebeth to just 240 minutes of Super Rugby this year. Du Toit started the season strongly but hasn’t played a match since late May.
Outside centre Kriel is in a slightly different boat.
Five midfielders have been selected in the Springboks squad for the Rugby Championship. Kriel is joined by his regular partner from the latter half of last year, Damian de Allende, as well as the Sharks pairing of Andre Esterhuizen and Lukhanyo Am. The returning Frans Steyn, who debuted for the Springboks 13 years ago, is the final piece in the mix.
South Africa played four matches on last year’s tour to Europe. Close losses to England and Wales sandwiched tight wins over Scotland and France. The de Allende/Kriel partnership started in all four matches, with Elton Jantjies coming off the bench in three of the matches to take over from de Allende. Lionel Mapoe and Esterhuizen were the only other dedicated midfielders to also travel north but only Esterhuizen received any game time, and just 20 minutes at that.
You could be forgiven for assuming that Kriel’s 320 minutes of play on that end of year tour means he’s the obvious first-choice centre for the Springboks. That would perhaps be the case if it weren’t for the presence of Lukhanyo Am in the current squad.
Am wasn’t a part of 2018’s end of year tour on account of breaking his arm in South Africa’s clutch win against New Zealand in Wellington last year. Although Am was initially named in the touring party, his injury was healing up slower than anticipated and was replaced in the squad by Mapoe.
The fact that Am was even selected in the squad at all should give you an idea of how well-regarded the former Kings player is by coach Erasmus. Am could barely pass a ball and hadn’t played a game of rugby in a month and a half yet was still considered one of the top four centres in the country.
As such, it should come as no surprise that Am has been recalled into the Springboks on the back of a very successful Super Rugby campaign.
Successful start to Rugby Championship
There’s a reason why Erasmus values Am so much. The Sharks centre played his first Rugby Championship match last year, against the Pumas at his home ground in Durban. Am partnered with Sharks teammate Esterhuizen for that much, with the Springboks emerging victors, 34-21. The outside centre scored the Springboks’ first try of the game.
Am then had the ignominy of playing in South Africa’s biggest-ever loss to Argentina just one week later, falling 32-19 in Buenos Aires. Whilst Am didn’t cover himself in glory in that match, no Springbok did, with the forward pack getting belted by the Argentinians.
The embarrassment of that defeat was quickly replaced with glory, however. Kriel started in South Africa’s next game, a loss to Australia, but Am was reinstated for the Springbok’s fixture against the All Blacks. He made some punishing tackles against the men in black, helping the Springboks to a 2-point lead at halftime before he had to retire due to injury.
When available, Am has been an almost certain selection for the Erasmus – and that looks like it’s set to continue when the Springboks face the All Blacks in a rematch of the Wellington match from last year.
Kriel still playing like a fullback
Kriel would have hoped that his efforts on the end of year tour in 2018 would have been enough to reassert himself as the first choice 13 for his national side, but that looks like it’s not the case.
Am showed in Super Rugby why he’s so valuable for the Springboks. Kriel is a converted fullback – perhaps better at running the ball – but Am is a midfielder through and through. His distribution skills certainly trump Kriels and he often chooses to put his teammates in space instead of looking to make the breaks himself. When Am does decide to carry, however, he’s a hard man to put down and is often able to keep the ball alive in the tackle. When you have as dangerous outside backs as the Springboks do, it’s easy to see why Am might be favoured.
Of course, there is a chance that Erasmus does still see Kriel as first choice. Few experienced players have been selected for the Wallabies match this weekend and having an experienced campaigner like Kriel in the backs will be invaluable for the relatively inexperienced line-up.
Regardless, Kriel won’t be want to get complacent. He has the first opportunity this year to prove that he’s a worthy starting centre for South Africa but already finds himself in the ‘B team’ and having to make up ground.
The World Cup kicks off in two months – that doesn’t leave aspiring Springboks lots of time to assert themselves on the international stage. Kriel’s battle for a spot in the midfield starts this weekend, and he needs to hit top gear right from the go.
By Tom Vinicombe, Rugbypass