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Rugby | Springboks

Allister Coetzee © Getty Images

Club calls create Bok curve ball

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee wants to put the “strongest possible team” on the field in Saturday’s clash with Italy, but there are circumstances that should precipitate some thought before he makes his selection.

This third match of the tour will be the last where Coetzee has his full squad available. The international window ends this weekend, meaning that the South African players who are contracted to overseas clubs will have to return to those clubs the following week, which is when the Boks end their schedule for the year by facing Wales in Cardiff.

Although the Boks lost 20-18 to the Azzurri 12 months ago, the Millennium Stadium date was always going to be the second biggest one of the tour after the clash with Ireland in Dublin. The Boks were well beaten by Wales in Cardiff in 2016, only their third defeat to the Welsh, and will want to show they have made some progress from that nightmare tour and end the year with a flourish.

So the question then follows – will the Bok purposes be served on Saturday if they field a team that is very different from the one that will play a week later? For a start, there will be two key members of the back row not available for Cardiff. Francois Louw will return to Bath, while Duane Vermeulen will be back in Toulon.

Back-up lock Franco Mostert might be due for a run as a member of the starting team again, but he will be unavailable to play in Cardiff because he is contracted to play in Japan. And Elton Jantjies, were Coetzee to recall him to the starting team, would also drop out for the final game.

The reason this should create a quandary for Coetzee is because of his observance of the continuity mantra, something he has done all year. Taking a similar team to the one that beat France into the game against Italy will ensure continuity from seven days ago, but then he won't be able to draw on continuity against Wales as key changes will have to be made and combinations tampered with.

The possible quandary at loose-forward will be eased for Coetzee by the fact that Siya Kolisi has returned home to be at the birth of his child. Kolisi has been a constant presence for the Boks this year and will be back to wear either the No 6 or No 7 jersey by the time the Boks arrive in Wales. It will probably be the No 6 as Pieter-Steph du Toit is likely to get through the concussion protocols and be declared fit to face Italy. He missed the narrow 18-17 win over France at the weekend.

Dan du Preez was energetic when he came on for his first appearance in the green and gold in Paris and the smart money would be on him starting at No 8 when Vermeulen returns to France. But there will be a temptation on Coetzee’s part to give him a run off the bench quite early in the Italy game so that he can be better prepared for the Millennium Stadium battle.

The good news when the Boks got down to their preparation for the Italy game on Monday was that tight forwards Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx, who were both prominent as ball carriers against France, are both expected to be over the injuries they sustained in Paris and available to play.

Etzebeth picked up a leg injury that was initially a cause for concern and man of the match Marx injured his shoulder, but team doctor Konrad von Hagen said in his medical report that both are likely to play.

“The X-rays we did on Saturday all came out normal and we expect it to just be a soft tissue injury and will manage it accordingly,” said Von Hagen of Marx’s condition.

“Pieter-Steph is busy with the last steps of his return to play protocols but I expect him to be available for selection,” the doctor added.

The Coetzee selection approach for this week should be dictated by how seriously he takes the continuity mantra that he has stuck to for most of this year and how he weighs it up against the memory of how his men came unstuck against Italy in 2016. New Zealand would probably rest key players at this point, but the South Africans will probably feel they can’t afford to.

Then again, there is the question of how Coetzee is perceiving the last game of the tour. When he was in Cardiff 12 months ago, the coach made wholesale changes for the Welsh clash and there was talk of a new beginning. Regardless of what happens against Italy the time for talking about new beginnings is over.

With Coetzee understood to be shopping in Japan for alternative employment, and Rassie Erasmus poised to become the boss either in his capacity as director of rugby or as head coach himself going forward, the Wales game might not be the big determinant of Coetzee’s future that some people think it is.

According to what he has said publicly, Coetzee sees the unavailability of overseas players for the 2 December date in Cardiff as an opportunity to grow the squad.

“There will be opportunities in the last match because that one falls outside the international window, which means that the test players based overseas will not be available for selection,” said Coetzee.


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