Gavin Rich, for Business Day Sport
Warren Whiteley is still on the injured list and so is the other captain from last year, Eben Etzebeth, but Rassie Erasmus should feel he is in a rare position for a Springbok coach of having more headaches caused by who to leave out as he has looking for players to include.
The Boks start their 2018 campaign against Wales in Washington just six weeks from now and apart from scrumhalf and possibly number eight, depending on the injury to Whiteley and the availability of Duane Vermeulen, there is hardly a position in the starting team where Erasmus doesn’t have several viable options to choose from.
The Lions and to a lesser extent the Bulls are forging ahead of the rest in the South African Conference but all the local Super Rugby teams have individual players who should be impressing Erasmus and causing him a few sleepless nights as he mulls over his options.
The Stormers are currently last in the South African Conference but Pieter-Steph du Toit is playing out of his skin – as a blindside flank. The Sharks have been as inconsistent as the Stormers have, and they too have a blindside flank who has shown his world class credentials in the form of Jean-Luc du Preez.
So which one does Erasmus choose? The Erasmus conundrum at loose-forward is further complicated by the fact that Lood de Jager is fitter than he has ever been and is in the sort of form in the Bulls’ No5 jersey that made him the South African Rugby Player of the Year in 2015. That could force Erasmus to consider Du Toit for a role outside the second row.
Even with Etzebeth and JD Schickerling both out injured there is no shortage of options for Erasmus at lock. You’d say the same about tighthead prop too now that Trevor Nyakane has responded to John Mitchell’s call for him to be conditioned better and is playing the rugby of his life. Wilco Louw is the incumbent and has been solid for the Stormers, Frans Malherbe is back in training, but let’s not forget that Erasmus has a high regard for the overseas based Vincent Koch too.
Talking about overseas players, Bismarck du Plessis is expected to return to the Bok mix, probably as an understudy to Marx but with a brief to impart some of his experience. It is the midfield though that could be most impacted by Erasmus’ overseas preferences. Just look at the following list of potential inside centre selections – Frans Steyn and Jan Serfontein are overseas based players but Damian de Allende and Andre Esterhuizen, to name just two, have been great in Super Rugby.
Outside centre though could be giving Erasmus more to think about. When the Bok coach returned from Ireland last November to take up his position as national director of rugby, he was in agreement that Lukhanyo Am was unlucky not to be the first choice Bok outside centre. That view was vindicated this past weekend by Am’s masterful performance for the Sharks.
Am’s progress has perhaps been slightly stunted by him playing for a franchise that is still working on developing a playing style that would suit a backline player, but for the past two years the centre has done enough to show his promise and just recently he has started to underline it in quite emphatic fashion. He is a class act.
But while Am would have been the choice of many for the No13 last year, that was a time when Jesse Kriel was showing little evidence of why he had been chosen to play international rugby. Kriel produced his moments of brilliance but too often looked disconnected in the midfield and his skill levels also let him down.
That has all changed with Mitchell as coach of the Bulls, and he has been in the sort of form this season that makes him hard to ignore. It would be hard to argue a case for either player in contention for the outside centre selection at the expense of the other, so perhaps Erasmus should consider fielding them both in the same team.
No, I am not suggesting that Kriel return to his old position of fullback, where Warrick Gelant is surely now a certainty. To me Kriel has always looked like a top international wing in the making. Kriel has pace and is a good finisher and his experience at both fullback and outside centre would make him a good fit on the wing.