On Saturday the first test of the Rugby Championship at Ellis Park is little more than a final trial for some of the players in the current Springbok camp, and also for the Australian side they will face.
In days gone by, when rugby tests were exactly that, the trial would have been held a week or so before the test.
It sadly is no longer the case. Gone is a good chunk of the excitement and the expectations of how the five selectors had viewed the players, their combinations and prowess during the week of trials culminating in the Probables versus the Possibles on the final day.
This isn’t the Boks strongest team that will face the Wallabies, and nor is it a B team. It is a mixture of seeing how returnees from injury and the overseas players now with the Springboks will fare, both in their fitness grade, adaptability and general prowess.
It also isn’t the Wallabies best; like that of the Springboks it is an experimental side of mixed strength.
The same goes for the All Blacks, playing against Argentina later on Saturday (20:05).
In fact, the Rugby Championship isn’t that at all this year. The shortened three-match competition is even more unbalanced than merely the travelling that affects performance. This year two sides will play two matches at home and one away and the other two will play one match at home and two away.
The competition is at best an opportunity for the coaches to gauge what they have, how the players will fit into their plans for the world cup and, on top of it being trials, to get a little match practice in at above Super Rugby level.
♦ What can one expect at Ellis Park on Saturday?
It is a strong South African side, but not the country’s best. There are few real weaknesses, of which the most glaring is probably the lack of real pace at loose forward. The selection of Nic White as the Wallabies starting scrumhalf could be to the home side’s advantage.
White will kick more than Will Genia would’ve, and the lack of loose forward pace could thereby be neutralised to some extent. The exclusion of Kurtley Beale from the run-on side will also make less roving loose forwards a lesser gamble.
The Boks are a strong scrummaging unit that will have to cope with two very experienced Australian props, and with the benefit of two experienced albeit not match-fit locks in captain Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, and good lineout options in Pieter-Steph du Toit and new cap Rynardt Elstadt the home side could dominate the first phase possession.
Question marks will be the fitness of Beast Mtawarira, Etzebeth and De Jager, and how the two Jantjies, Elton and new cap Herschel, will combine as a halfback pair.
The Boks have only lost to Australia once at Ellis Park. That was in 1963. Since then they have won nine times at this Highveld venue. The altitude advantage is however largely negated by the arrival of the Wallabies more than a week before the test.
Everything considered, the Springboks should be strong enough to beat the visitors by more than one score, with a 10-point margin not an outrageous prediction.
15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Sibusiso Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Francois Louw, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Rynhardt Elstadt , 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (captain), 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Marcel Coetzee, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
15 Tom Banks, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Reece Hodge, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nic White, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 5 Rory Arnold, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper. Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Jack Dempsey, 21 Will Genia, 22 Matt To’omua, 23 Kurtley Beale.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)