Thu, 12 Dec 2019

'Soft' Bok July roster may suit Rassie fine, thanks

News24
21 Nov 2019, 22:10 GMT+10

Cape Town - Expect few quibbles, I believe, from Springbok master plotter Rassie Erasmus over the world champions' first stretch of Test matches since the Webb Ellis Cup-winning heroics in Japan.

As reported on Sport24 ahead of Wednesday's confirmation from SA Rugby, the Boks will play two Tests against Scotland on home soil (July 4 and 11) followed by a once-off against a Tier 2 nation - now revealed as Georgia - on July 18, completing their assignments for the inbound tours window.

All venues and kick-off times for the trio of dates are yet to be revealed.

Understandably, the July programme may seem a little mundane to some Bok enthusiasts, pitting the World Cup title-holders against currently the most vulnerable of the four "home nations" - the Scots are ranked ninth globally and ended fifth, only ahead of Italy, in the last edition of the Six Nations earlier this year - and then an outright minnow side ranked 14th on the world ladder.

But tours are often put into preliminary planning mode well before they become official, and in this case quite probably even before it was known that South Africa (ranked fourth ahead of it, remember) would slightly defy bookies' expectation and win RWC 2019.

The more likely strength-versus-strength, appealing mini-series on paper in July 2020, then, will be Ireland's visit to Australia (now with Dave Rennie as head coach) and New Zealand's hosting of Six Nations champions Wales, bearing in mind that RWC runners-up England should comfortably enough see off Japan in a brace of Tests away.

Still, there is no law or special tradition I am aware of, dictating that newly-crowned World Cup champions should automatically be fast-tracked for a crackerjack, demanding sequence of follow-up Tests against the very premier other powers.

There will always be years in which the July Tests - more familiarly played in June previously, when World Rugby's window was slightly earlier - are a little less challenging in rostered character than they are in others.

Generally, the pattern is for the three most heavyweight southern hemisphere teams to rotate home series against the main powers of the "north" like the four home nations and France.

The Boks, on that basis, were roughly due to entertain Scotland anyway: since the last home activity against them in 2014, all of Ireland (2016), France (2017) and England (2018) have toured here, while Wales had also come to South Africa in that last year that the Scots did.

What about the "missing" 2015? Well, it remains to the chagrin of former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer that he didn't have the benefit of an inbound tour (from any European Test side) in his preparation for the World Cup that year, when the Boks only played a curtailed Rugby Championship and one extra Test against Argentina in the lead-up.

Speaking of the Championship, keep in mind that the four-nation event (back to a more traditional double round in 2020), will be considered the Bok priority next year.

While the holders of the title from their 2019 triumph, it will be their first opportunity to win it on a more legitimate, full-length basis since 2009 and would firmly underline both the worthiness of their elevation to RWC 2019 glory and status as current top-ranked side.

Against that backdrop, playing two earlier Tests against Scotland and one against Georgia (their first visit to SA and only second bilateral meeting ever) is actually a pretty good result for the preparation by Erasmus, as director of rugby, and whoever is appointed new head coach.

It should allow the world champions to keep up a winning habit - even if they are a little stale or off-beat to begin with in 2020 - while giving room for deft player rotation and some experimentation with both new personnel and any fresh ideas.

Some of the Bok troops will have had more burdensome Super Rugby (or foreign-based club) game-time than others by then, meaning that certain individuals not being overly "flogged" in the July internationals could reap benefits in the Championship not too long afterwards.

South Africa would also flippantly under-estimate either the Scots or earthy, scrum-conscious Georgians at their peril: it is not as though we are talking cut and dried, pre-ordained walkovers.

While neither visiting outfit will carry truly pronounced star appeal in their ranks, the wave of pride, adulation and goodwill that has followed the Boks' RWC success should guarantee rosy attendances for them at whichever venues they tackle the two July guest teams in their first gallops since that tumultuous showpiece in Yokohama.

Ace strategist Erasmus ought to be having less than sleepless nights about the prospect ... and why would that be so bad?

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