Bafana, Boks on parade
Crucial games against Libya and Australia give national teams a crack at redemption after embarrassing losses
It is a huge weekend for SA soccer and rugby, with the Springboks playing the Wallabies in Brisbane and Bafana Bafana hosting Libya in Durban.
Both games are extremely important to the players and coaching staff as well as the SA Football Association (Safa) and Rugby SA. Victory in the round-ball game will ensure Bafana stay on course for the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon in 2019 and a win in the oval-ball Test will keep the Boks’ Rugby Championship hopes alive.
Wins for Bafana and the Boks will also ease the pressure on coaches Stuart Baxter and Rassie Erasmus, who occupy the hottest seats in SA sport.
The Springboks come off a humiliating defeat to Argentina a fortnight ago, which Erasmus described as "embarrassing".
As mortifying for Baxter and Bafana were two defeats to Cape Verde in 2017, which killed SA’s chances of playing at the recent World Cup finals in Russia.
Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium hosted the second of those 2-1 defeats, and the coach will be praying history does not repeat itself on Saturday.
Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium has also not been a happy ground for the Boks, who have beaten the Wallabies just once in seven Tests.
The rugby kicks off at noon and the football at 3pm.
Having beaten Nigeria 2-0 away in the opening match of their Afcon qualifying campaign just over a year ago, Bafana know a victory against Libya will put them well on the road to Cameroon 2019.
Seychelles, who Libya beat 5-1 in their opener at "home" in Egypt, seem destined to be the whipping boys of Group E. So, with the group winners and runners-up both qualifying, a victory away against Nigeria and another at home against Libya should leave the return matches against both teams academic.
"This is a massive game for us in many ways. The good result against Nigeria pales into insignificance if we don’t get a good result against Libya at home," Baxter said. "It’s important that we continue to take points, because if we can do that it may be done and dusted before the end of the group.
"And we do want that. We don’t want it to go down to the wire. We want to be able to give other people a run if we can wrap it up early."
Baxter hinted that SuperSport United striker Bradley Grobler, a scorer in the 2-0 training match win against AmaZulu on Wednesday, may have a role to play.
He has scored three goals, helping to steer SuperSport to the MTN8 final.
"Looking at the way Libya defend. They’ve conceded a lot of goals on set plays.
"They’ve conceded a lot from crosses," Baxter said.
Bafana captain Thulani Hlatshwayo said this week his team need to apply themselves to get the win. Then beating Seychelles twice will secure them their place in the finals before Nigeria arrive in November.
SA’s match against Libya will be televised by the SABC on Saturday after the cash-strapped public broadcaster agreed to pay a third of the R50m it owes to Safa.
Erasmus says that his charges are not too far behind all-conquering New Zealand in terms of physical conditioning. Though he conceded that his assertion is likely to be challenged by some because of his team’s inconsistencies, Erasmus maintained that the current crop of Bok players are the fittest bunch he has worked with.
"I know people will say: ‘How can you say that’, but I know this is the fittest bunch of players I have worked with."
Erasmus on Thursday announced six changes to the starting line-up for the Test against Australia. Notably, Elton Jantjies will replace the struggling Handré Pollard at flyhalf.
"It was always our plan to give him [Jantjies] a run here in Australia and Pollard knew about this a few weeks ago."
Erasmus was quick to point out that the Boks still lag behind the All Blacks — who they meet in Wellington next weekend — in terms of experience and reputation. "In stature, aura, experience and those sorts of things, we are still behind them, but in the conditioning department we don’t stand too far back," he said.
‘‘I know in our last match against Argentina effort was not good enough but fitness is not the thing that is our problem," he said, adding that their biggest Achilles heel since he took over has been poor starts.
In the changes for Saturday’s clash, Steven Kitshoff will start in place of Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi for Malcolm Marx, Pieter-Steph du Toit for Francois Louw, Jantjies for Pollard, Damian de Allende for André Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel for Lukhanyo Am.
Captain Siya Kolisi is the only positional change as he returns to open side flanker after he played on the opposite side of the scrum in the two matches against Argentina in Durban and in Mendoza.