By Nick Said
CAPETOWN (Reuters) – South Africa will seek to end a barren run in the Rugby Championship that stretches back almost a decade, but will do so amid experimentation as they keep a firm eye on next year’s World Cup in Japan.
Coach Rassie Erasmus, who is only four tests into his tenure, has admitted he will mix and match combinations as he aims to build a versatile and resilient squad for next year’s Asian odyssey.
Erasmus will have at his disposal a number of stalwart players who have yet to feature in the Springbok side this year due to injury, but must do without the impact of Duane Vermeulen.
The 32-year-old was head and shoulders above the other loose forwards in the 2-1 home series win over England in June but has been allowed to play club rugby in Japan instead.
Tempering that loss is the return of powerhouse hooker Malcolm Marx, number eight Warren Whiteley and experienced lock Eben Etzebeth, while the inclusion of 20-year-old Damian Willemse as cover at flyhalf, centre and fullback is an exciting development.
Erasmus suggested last week his job will be on the line if the side do not have a satisfactory Rugby Championship, but he must also play the role of juggler to achieve all the team’s goals.
“There are three things, three pillars to our goal-setting,” Erasmus told reporters. “Firstly, we need to be winning, secondly we need to be transforming (the racial demographic of the squad) and thirdly we need to be building depth.
“Winning is the primary thing. Just like I said before the June matches, I know I won’t still be sitting here if we have a terrible Rugby Championship.
“But we also need to build towards being successful. In saying that, I am not saying judge me on the Rugby World Cup (only).”
The decision to retain Siya Kolisi as the Boks first black captain is the correct one, even with the returning Whiteley who did such a sterling job before his long-term injury, though Erasmus has suggested he may switch the former from openside to blindside flank during the competition.
That is one of a number of areas he is likely to tinker, with the locks, outside backs and centre positions also set to be rotated.
The Boks last won the southern hemisphere competition in 2009, one of only three previous titles.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)