Cape Town – Rassie Erasmus said he would keep his options open for last-gasp Springbok tour squad selection, allowing for illuminating performances in Saturday’s Currie Cup final to still be influencers.
While the Sharks were worthy winners against Western Province at uncomfortably hot Newlands, not too many of the participants, to borrow cricketing parlance, would have bothered the scorers over the course of the showpiece, specifically, for a hasty call-up – it was an error-strewn, clumsy affair too often lacking in continuity.
The national coach was nevertheless prepared to “rush from the final” (the words used in the official SA Rugby media release afterwards) three hitherto uncapped players from the ranks of the losing hosts: outside centre Ruhan Nel, right wing Sergeal Petersen and lock JD Schickerling.
Erasmus is perfectly entitled, of course, to look beyond one domestic match for his picks: WP had been brilliant throughout the league phase of the competition before losing an alarming amount of their attacking sharpness both in the semi-final (that close shave against the Bulls) and then again on Saturday.
The trio of rookies are well-merited inclusions as the Bok mastermind looks to increase his depth just under a year out from RWC 2019 in Japan.
But expect a few hopping mad Sharks fans over the absence of one man who did generally lift his game to exemplary levels in the too often tedious final: hooker and entirely fitting, official player-of-the-match Akker van der Merwe.
Frankly, the much-loved “Angry Warthog” – a title given to him by one of Erasmus’s predecessors as Bok coach, Nick Mallett – seems desperately close at present to next best in the national pecking order to the clear-cut first choice in the No 2 jersey for South Africa, Lions-based bruiser Malcolm Marx.
Instead, he doesn’t even make the cut for the 36-strong party (20 forwards, 16 backs) revealed after the final, as the Boks stick to Marx, Bongi Mbonambi and veteran Schalk Brits as their trio of hookers.
Mbonambi was the pretty impressive “supersub” to Marx for much of the recent Rugby Championship, where the Boks ended as tournament runners-up, and had earlier been no less impressive as a starter in the decisive first two Tests of the home series against England when Marx was absent through injury.
But in more recent weeks the 27-year-old, now the holder of 22 caps, has looked more than a little jaded after his sterling exertions earlier in the season.
Mbonambi was again short of best precision levels in the key area of lineout-throwing on Saturday, even if the hooker should never automatically cop all the blame for shortcomings at that set-piece.
Province botched far too many of their own throw-ins and that bugbear was strongly influential in their 17-12 reverse.
Both in the semi-final, when they overcame the rank-underdog Blue Bulls by a whisker, and final, WP seemed better served when a hungrier-looking Scarra Ntubeni entered the fray off the bench.
Mbonambi nevertheless deserves to stay in the broad Bok mix, and Erasmus and his lieutenants will be hopeful he regains both his mental and physical edge on the four-match European trek, starting against England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Arguably the bigger talking point will be whether much-travelled Brits, now 37, warranted pipping Sharks livewire Van der Merwe to the third hooker’s berth.
Clearly Brits’s extraordinary mobility, despite his advancing years, and rich knowledge of northern hemisphere conditions through his roughly 10 years at Saracens helped get him the nod.
But Van der Merwe, who sports three Bok appearances as a second-half sub (Wales in Washington DC, two of the home England Tests) has taken his own play up a notable notch of late, culminating in his impressive Currie Cup final.
With his fairly low centre of gravity, bustling style in open play and respectable, 108kg-aided contribution to scrum efforts, the Highveld-born customer could have come in handy in the European early winter.
Perhaps his best chance of a return to favour will be if one of the touring trio, in a highly specialist position, picks up an injury as he must –surely? – be hugely obvious next cab off the rank from back home …
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