subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Picture: NWU
Picture: NWU

Rassie Erasmus must feel that in some ways he has gone full circle as he prepares for the official return to his role as Springbok coach in Saturday’s match against Wales in London.

It was in a neutral venue game against Wales, that time in Washington, that Erasmus made his Bok head coaching debut back in 2018. He even has the same stand-in captain leading the team. Pieter-Steph du Toit is captaining now, as he did then, because Siya Kolisi is unavailable. Six years ago it was because Kolisi was back in SA with the first choice squad preparing for the series against England.

Much has changed for both Du Toit and Erasmus since that makeshift Bok team lost to Wales by two points.

Du Toit, who played his old position of lock that night, wasn’t highly rated by Erasmus at the start, which was why he was leading the second stringers. But since then he’s made a permanent shift of positions and gone on to win two World Cups and the World Rugby Player of the Year award. He has become an essential member of the Bok team.

For Erasmus, what has changed is that he has succeeded in the mission he started then of growing depth and re-establishing the Boks as a force. Even though he has experimented a bit with this selection, it is nowhere near the risk the one in Washington was.

Erasmus has selected the Lions’ Jordan Hendrikse as his flyhalf and he has another debutant in wing Edwill van der Merwe in the starting team. He’s been bold by effectively also including the young but precociously talented Stormers player Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu as the only No 10 backup to Hendrikse.

Many see Feinberg-Mngomezulu as the next big thing at flyhalf, and Hendrikse has always been on Erasmus’ radar even though for a long time this season the Lions coaches backed Sanele Nohamba instead. Neither of them have played for their country before, so you could say they are being thrown in at the deep end.

But what’s different now from the Washington game is that Erasmus has experienced players around the newcomers. Faf de Klerk is at scrumhalf, and while André Esterhuizen hasn’t worn the Bok No 12 jersey as often as Damian de Allende, who plays the Twickenham game off the bench, he has played enough international rugby now to be a settling presence.

Esterhuizen and his centre partner, Jesse Kriel, are the only combination from the Washington game that will be together again at Twickenham, while wing Makazole Mapimpi is another player from that team who is playing again (with Du Toit, Ox Nche and Kwagga Smith).

Having Mapimpi there will be welcomed by fullback Aphelele Fassi, who should appreciate having a Sharks teammate he is so familiar with nearby as he tries to restart his international career. Though Fassi appears to have an extensive fan club, Erasmus hasn’t always been in that group, and most of Fassi’s previous appearances for the Boks — he has three caps — have been on the wing.

This time he will be at his preferred position and has a chance to show what he can do — a chance he must make the most of. Damian Willemse is injured and there is a bit of doubt over Willie le Roux, who was concussed in the United Rugby Championship (URC) semifinal win over Leinster.

Fassi has made some big improvements in key areas of his game and has worked hard on his kicking and aspects of his defensive game. He’s shone on attack for the Sharks but still occasionally has games where there are glaring defensive lapses and he is caught out of position.

Those aspects of his game will be watched closely by Erasmus, and hopefully he passes the test as there is no denying his natural talents and what he could bring to the Boks if he makes the grade as an international player. In 2018 it was Curwin Bosch who wore the No 15 jersey in Washington. He failed to make use of his opportunity and hasn’t come close to Bok selection since.

Unlike in 2018, Erasmus should feel spoilt for choice. Though there is an experimental dynamic to it, the team for Wales still looks a formidable combination, even without the European-based players and the Bulls, who are in the URC final.

Given how good they were in dispatching Leinster, there should be several Bulls players pushing for inclusion when they are available. In that sense Evan Roos, who has been good at No 8 before for the Boks, is another who needs to maximise this opportunity.

I don’t say that because I doubt Roos’ abilities. It is just that his Bulls opposite number, Cameron Hanekom, has made such great strides that he must also be in the reckoning to fill the void left by the retirement of Duane Vermeulen and the suspension of Jasper Wiese. Roos is a brilliant player so this potential dilemma is an excellent illustration of why I say Erasmus is spoilt for choice.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.