Tough time awaits the Boks in Australia and New Zealand
Building capacity has become Erasmus' pro as well as his con
When the Springboks crossed the Indian Ocean for the Australasian leg of the Rugby Championship, coach Rassie Erasmus would have been forgiven for feeling he was between the devil and the deep blue sea.
His selection strategy of fast tracking young players so that he has a broad base to select from for next year's Rugby World Cup has met a perhaps predictable complication.
With three wins in his first six Tests, it has become increasingly apparent his team's capricious performances can partly be laid at the door of revolving-door selections. Whether consistency in selection will help engineer a turnaround cannot be guaranteed, but it may be a good start.
It is still early days in his tenure, but Erasmus' 50% win record thus far doesn't cut it, and defeat in Brisbane against the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Wellington will invite pressure the coach can frankly ill afford.
"It's gonna be tough," nodded an SA Rugby insider who stopped just short of predicting two defeats in Australasia. "When they come back for the home Tests, the pressure will be on and the team's morale will be low," the influential official said.
Though Erasmus' selection strategy potentially offers long-term gain over short- term pain, he knows all too well that time is a luxury Springbok coaches have in short supply. Franco Smith, who was a Springbok assistant coach last year, said Erasmus should be allowed time to bed down his systems.
"South Africans still think we are the best. It isn't that easy. You are not going to walk in and things happen. He should be allowed to walk his path," said Smith.
That path, Erasmus now hopes, will be illuminated by Toulouse utility back Cheslin Kolbe, the only uncapped player in the squad that travelled to Australasia. Kolbe was selected on the Springbok end-of-year tour in 2016, but didn't make it onto the field.
"Cheslin has certainly grabbed his opportunities for his French club and he has earned his spot in the squad. He is in good form and we are delighted to have him in the group," said Erasmus.
The coach also recalled scrumhalf Ross Cronjé, hooker Schalk Brits, centres Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende, as well as loose forward Sikhumbuzo Notshe.
De Allende returns from injury, while Cronjé rotates with Ivan van Zyl.
The coach is believed to be manoeuvring hard behind the scenes to have No 8 Duane Vermeulen declared available. He will be a much-needed addition to the Bok cause and his most recent contributions have been telling.
The Boks won the two Tests he was involved in on last year's end-of-year tour and he helped SA to a Test series win over England in June. The Boks have lost just seven of the last 29 Tests he was involved in.
The back row looked out of sync against Argentina in Mendoza. The Springboks need two gain-line busting loose forwards and despite hooker Malcolm Marx's Herculean efforts at the breakdown, they still need two loosies who can exact turnovers. Vermeulen is the near perfect hybrid.
While survival instinct may have driven Erasmus to revert to the tried and tested, he will have the nagging feeling that building squad depth is still the most prudent route if he wants to successfully challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup. He introduced 16 new faces to Test rugby in June and his policy of casting the net wide may now have some merit.
Increasingly, the teams who meet success at the Rugby World Cup do so having exhausted the bulk of their playing resources. Going through a World Cup campaign with a settled starting line-up and bench is outdated.
It is counter-productive to prepare a squad of more than 30 players only to leave a third disgruntled that they are not seeing any action. In any event, the competition has increasingly become a battle of attrition.
The last time fewer than 30 players were used in a successful World Cup campaign was in 1995 when Kitch Christie deployed 28 players.
Graham Henry has set the mark by using 33 players during the 2011 tournament. Had he used any less, the All Blacks may not have won the competition as Stephen Donald, who was fishing a week earlier and was roped in for the final, duly converted the winning penalty.
The Springbok squad to Australasia:
Schalk Brits, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Thomas du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi (captain), Francois Louw, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Franco Mostert, Tendai Mtawarira, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, RG Snyman, Marco van Staden, Warren Whiteley.
Backs: Lukhanyo Am, Ross Cronjé, Damian de Allende, Faf de Klerk, Aphiwe Dyantyi, André Esterhuizen, Elton Jantjies, Cheslin Kolbe, Jesse Kriel, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Embrose Papier, Handré Pollard, Damian Willemse...