By Nick Said
PRETORIA (Reuters) – South Africa and Argentina could scarcely find themselves in more contrasting circumstances as they prepare to meet in a one-off test at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday for which both teams have made a host of changes.
The Springboks are basking in the glory of a Rugby Championship success that confirms their turnaround in fortunes from a struggling side that racked up records for the wrong reasons two years ago to genuine World Cup contenders.
Argentina, meanwhile, have been on the slide for some time, currently on run of eight test defeats in a row and boasting just three wins in their last 24 internationals.
The Boks thumped the South American side 46-13 in Salta last weekend to lift the Rugby Championship for the first time in a decade and have started to look a much more accomplished outfit under coach Rassie Erasmus.
They will field a completely overhauled team in Pretoria though, with 15 new starters, including a return for regular skipper Siya Kolisi, who has not played a test this year because of injury.
While this most certainly does not apply to Kolisi, Erasmus is keen to give those players on the fringes of his World Cup squad a final chance to earn his trust for Japan in what is the Boks’ last home game before the tournament.
With so many changes, Erasmus admits it will be hard to produce the perfect performance, but he is hoping to maintain the team’s momentum heading towards the global showpiece.
“There are a helluva lot of changes in this team, so I guess they will take some time to gel,” he admitted.
“No matter what has happened before this weekend, the momentum we will go to the World Cup with will depend on what happens on Saturday.
“Some of these players will know they are on the plane but for others it is make or break – and even if they don’t make the plane there will be six standby roles to be identified.”
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma has the opposite problem, trying to identify the 31 players he can take to the World Cup with any real confidence.
He has kept only five players in the starting XV from last weekend’s humiliation in Salta, and handed out first caps for prop Mayco Vivas and inside centre Lucas Mensa, while fullback Santiago Carreras could debut off the bench.
He has also selected an inexperienced half-back pairing of scrumhalf Felipe Ezcurra and Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, who have only three caps between them.
But for those players seeking to break into his World Cup plans, it is an excellent opportunity to put in a strong last-minute showing.
(Reporting By Nick Said; editing by Tony Lawrence)