ith time running out to adequately prepare for the First Test against the British and Irish Lions next Saturday, Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has named a formidable South Africa A team for what was supposed to be a routine warm-up match for the tourists.
Tomorrow, at the Cape Town Stadium, 12 of the 23 Springboks who beat England in the Rugby World Cup final two years ago, as well as a further six who were part of the broader tournament squad, will take the field in what has been billed as an unofficial Test.
For the first time since that heady night in Yokohama, Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks), Damien de Allende (Munster) and Vincent Kock (Saracens) will make their return to international rugby.
Also donning the green and gold for the first time in 620 days will be Lukhanyo Am, the outside centre who will captain the team in place of Siya Kolisi. The regular Springbok captain is one of six players to have tested positive for Covid.
The decision to play such a strong hand before the series begins in earnest is a risky one, and comes in the wake of the cancelled Second Test against Georgia last week because of the latest Covid outbreak.
As a result, most players have had very little rugby together. And though Erasmus will be conscious not to reveal too much to Lions coach Warren Gatland, he will be desperate to test out combinations in key areas of the park.
“If we had played Georgia twice and the SA “A” game, we couldn’t ask for more to get the guys match-fit,” Erasmus said. “You also want to let them have a bit of a break and a build-up. So we actually just lost one week of training and one match.”
Erasmus admitted that he all but “begged” for a second crack at the Lions on Saturday to assist in the Springbok’s preparations. Gatland, as was his prerogative, refused to cancel his scheduled date with the domestic franchise the Stormers. This means the Springboks have this one opportunity to iron out any creases before opening night.
There is, however, a shining example from which to draw confidence. When Argentina beat the New Zealand All Blacks for the first time in their history last November, they did so having not played a Test for 13 months.
But this Lions series is a best of three fixtures. And though Erasmus spoke highly of the Pumas’ famous win, he is also aware that they failed to claim a victory in their following three games.
“They struggled afterwards and didn’t win anything despite drawing twice,” Erasmus said. “But they showed guts and proved that playing for your country is a great motivator. “It helps a lot if one pulls in the same direction, working towards the same goal.
“We have some of the management staff who are quite sick and we’ve all had people close to us who’ve suffered because of covid-19. Sometimes, that adversity must carry you a bit too.”
Jasper Wiese, Leicester Tigers’ breakthrough player of the year, will make his first start for his country. 37-year-old Morne Steyn will begin at fly-half, 12 years after making his Test debut against the Lions.