Cape Town – There may be some fresh faces now in the broader tour squad, but Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus is likely to keep as much faith as he can in personnel who excelled twice against the All Blacks this season when he names his team to face England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Certain changes will be inevitable — given the unavailability or injured status of a few stalwarts – to the starting XV for game one of the four-match European mission.
Generally speaking, though, the Bok line-up should not differ too substantially, especially in the pack, from the ones employed in the 36-34 upset of the world-champion New Zealanders in Wellington and then nail-biting late 32-30 defeat in Pretoria after bossing generous periods of that Rugby Championship contest.
Seven of the eight forwards who featured at the outset of both bilateral thrillers may well feature again this Saturday, in perhaps the toughest obstacle of the tour but also a fixture that falls outside the official international window, meaning the likely absence of most overseas-based Boks.
That would mean a front row of Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe, lock pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert, and the flanks being captain Siya Kolisi and 2018 positional-switch revelation Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Only at No 8 will some sense of upheaval continue: Warren Whiteley operated there in the “Cake Tin” and then, when the Lions skipper was laid low by injury, versatile veteran Francois Louw stood in effectively enough at Loftus.
Bath-based Louw is expected to be among those ineligible this Saturday, but the alternative seems so obvious: brawny, now Bulls-bound Duane Vermeulen, highly influential in the 2-1 home series triumph over the English, is available for the duration of the tour and likely to be used generously over the next few weeks.
But another element of doubt surrounds Mostert, who is the subject of a contractual ding-dong between the Lions and his intended new employers Gloucester (in Saturday night’s Bok squad press release he was still branded a member of the Johannesburg franchise).
Should the reliable workhorse not be able to play against England, fit-again Lood de Jager, who has played some inspiring rugby in northern-hemisphere conditions before, could be fast-tracked back.
In the backline, meanwhile, squad members Willie le Roux (Wasps) and Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), both of whom started the last match against the All Blacks, may also only enter the tour picture after the first assignment has been ticked off.
Kolbe possibly has a better chance of a green light for “Twickers”, but if both are ineligible then a maiden start for adaptable, elusive-running Damian Willemse at fullback and recall to the right wing for stocky S’bu Nkosi seems the correct medicine.
Willemse has been shuffled around positionally quite a lot of late, including deployment at inside centre instead of flyhalf, his preferred slot, in WP’s Currie Cup final defeat to the Sharks at Newlands on Saturday, where Josh Stander operated at No 10 and served up a jittery performance on the big occasion.
But there is a school of thought that fullback, with its scope for space and counter-attacking possibilities, is a good way to blood Willemse, 20, to the demands of starting status in Test rugby.
The biggest conundrum (though not for the first time in the post-Fourie du Preez era) the Boks face, almost undoubtedly, is finding a suitable replacement on tour for complete absentee Faf de Klerk at the critical scrumhalf post.
With only fitful green-and-gold use so far in 2018 for both Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl, the Bulls duo, Erasmus may opt to have 28-year-old Louis Schreuder — fresh from hoisting the Currie Cup against his old union in Cape Town — leapfrog both to a maiden start against England just on the grounds of his superior first-class experience and game management potential.
Possible Bok starting XV (to be named Thursday) at Twickenham: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Cheslin Kolbe (or S’bu Nkosi), 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (capt), 5 Franco Mostert (or Lood de Jager), 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
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