While there’s still plenty of rugby to be played between now and the first kick-off of South Africa’s Test series against the British & Irish Lions in July, there are certain figures from both camps that, barring injury or major loss of form, will almost certainly have huge roles to play.
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Handré Pollard v Owen Farrell
Pollard has been out injured since September after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament against Racing 92 but remains absolutely vital to Jacques Nienaber’s side’s plans. In fact, he is arguably the Bok’s most important player when fit and proved during the World Cup in Japan just how good he can be. That said, the Montpellier man is yet to properly challenge for the mantle of “world’s best flyhalf” despite undoubtedly having the talent to do so. If Pollard can make a successful return to the playing field, this series will give him a real chance of taking that next step.
While Farrell’s recent form may yet count against him, his endearing class should see him remain in pole position for a starting jersey. And indeed, whether that is at 10 or 12 remains to be seen, but there is every reason to suggest the man dubbed the “world’s most coachable player” by Squidge Rugby will end up running out as pivot. The England skipper has been one of the leading players in world rugby for some time now and his uber-competitive nature means he would covet a rare Test series win over the Springboks. There should be no doubting what he can do.
Cheslin Kolbe v Stuart Hogg
While Willie le Roux is still considered to be the incumbent Bok No 15, the continued rise of Kolbe, as well as the form of various other South African wingers, could see the diminutive Toulouse man shifted to the No 15 role. Along with Antoine Dupont and Semi Radradra, this writer considers Kolbe to form part of the top three players in the world at present. His impact, even when deployed at flyhalf, is outstanding and there is every reason to believe that a move to fullback could allow him to add even greater value to the Boks — especially when one considers the likes of Makazole Mapimpi and Sbu Nkosi could be out wide.
Hogg will want to make up for lost time after a freak facial injury against the Crusaders on the 2017 tour ruled him out of the Test series. The Scotland captain was the back-to-back reigning Six Nations Player of the Year at the time, and his absence from that series was a cruel blow. Heading into this one, he should be favourite to start again at No 15 and will be a constant threat with his electric speed, skill and counterattacking ability.
Makazole Mapimpi v Josh Adams
Mapimpi is regarded as one of the best finishers in the game and should again be one of the go-to men for the Boks this season. He’s been turning out for the NTT Docomo Hurricanes in Japan over the past few months and should be feeling fresh and energised to help the Bok’s tackle the very best from Britain and Ireland. In a Test series where chances are likely to be few and far between, Mapimpi’s speed and technical ability will be crucial.
Adams is another finisher extraordinaire whose form for Worcester, Cardiff and Wales over the past few seasons has been vital to the plans of each side. Adams’ aerial ability will be another huge advantage for the Red Army, and former boss Gatland will likely back him to start out wide in the Tests.
Written by Shaun Goosen.