JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Hosts South Africa and visitors England have an opportunity for immediate redemption after recent dips in form but this month’s three test series between the two countries is more about building towards the 2019 World Cup.
Both squads are missing key elements, either injured or rested, opening the opportunity for fringe players to stake claims for a place on the plane to Japan next year, starting with Saturday’s first test at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
South Africa begin a new era under Rassie Erasmus, lauded for his previously innovative coaching work in Ireland and tasked with lifting Springbok rugby from the doldrums.
The Boks, who were third place finishers at the last World Cup, have slumped to seventh place in the world rankings after two years of negative results while England, after a rampant start to Eddie Jones’ tenure, travel to South Africa on the back of a disappointing and unsuccessful defence of their Six Nations title.
Jones is now on the defensive following criticism of his training methods after 15 players have been injured on England duty. His selection of New Zealand-born flanker Brad Shields, who is on the bench for Saturday’s opening test, has opened up another controversy over international eligibility and switching winger Elliot Daly with fullback Mike Brown has also highlighted the coach’s penchant for the unconventional.
“We feel it’s going to aid us going forward,” said Jones after naming his side on Thursday.
“Daly has got extreme speed and a good kicking game, and Browny at 11 will free him up a bit more to do the things he’s good at around the ruck. He doesn’t carry that ultimate responsibility of looking after that back field. We feel that’s worth a try for us.”
The appointment of Siya Kolisi as the first black captain of the Boks has proven a public relations triumph for Erasmus, but ultimately he needs to raise the level of the side back to that of a competitive team in the next year to temper growing anxiety over the future of one of rugby’s traditional giants.
“I think it is massively important to make brave calls, and to not just be in crisis management mode. We don’t want to make conservative selections or just go back to the older generation. We want to keep evolving, and trying and testing new guys under pressure,” Erasmus said on Thursday as he named a team with three new caps.
“The aim is to also build our squad and leadership group, while hopefully winning while doing it. There’s always pressure to win, but we never want to stop trying things or we will never catch up. It’s important to strike that balance between winning and evolving.”
Saturday’s first test will be followed by the second in Bloemfontein on June 16 and Cape Town on June 23.
Reporting By Mark Gleeson, Editing by William Maclean