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Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 3°C
PA Siya Kolisi has been isolating after testing positive for Covid-19.
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Springboks' first Test XV is almost as uncertain as Gatland's Lions team
The Boks’ Covid-19 outbreak means some players haven’t been able to play or train.

AS WARREN GATLAND and his coaching staff have gone about selecting their matchday 23 for the first Test next weekend – with plenty of conundrums in front of them today – the Springboks have been trying to piece theirs together amid a different challenge.

The Covid-19 outbreak in Boks camp two weeks ago meant key players like captain Siya Kolisi, wing Makazole Mapimpi, and several others have had to undergo a period of 10 days of isolation.

Head coach Jacques Nienaber and attack coach Felix Jones had to do so too, meaning they were coaching remotely for the South Africa A clash with the Lions last Wednesday.

They are both back in Boks camp in Cape Town now ahead of the first Test, while important players like out-half Handré Pollard, lock Lood de Jager, and tighthead prop Frans Malherbe re-integrated with the group in recent days.

Hooker Bongi Mbonambi was among those cleared to leave isolation in Johannesburg today, meaning the Boks are starting to get closer to having their full squad on-site in Cape Town as they prepare for the first Test against the Lions.

This is all good news, of course, but there are still complications ahead for the Boks due to the Covid outbreak.

Nienaber clarified earlier this week that players need to come through another six or seven days of return-to-play protocols after their 10 days of isolation, with medical tests mandatory to confirm that they don’t have any lasting health effects from the virus.

It leaves the Boks with uncertainty around who will definitely be available and that’s before even considering the lack of game time so many key men have had recently.

While Nienaber and SA Rugby director of rugby and waterboy Rassie Erasmus were delighted to see Damian de Allende get another impressive 54 minutes of action into his legs and lungs in yesterday’s South Africa A defeat to the Bulls, other key figures are still short of match fitness.

willie-le-roux-with-handre-pollard James Crombie / INPHO Handré Pollard is set to return next weekend. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Malherbe is a good example. He came off the bench in the Test against Georgia two weekends ago and then tested positive for Covid-19, forcing him into isolation. His most recent start was on 22 May for the Stormers in the Rainbow Cup.

When we also factor in these players’ inability to be out on the training pitch as they have isolated, it’s clear to see the challenge Nienaber and Erasmus face in picking their team.

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Do they opt for something very similar to the South Africa A team that beat the Lions this week – which was, admittedly, very strong – or do they get as many more World Cup final starters into the team as possible?

Meanwhile, there is a slight concern over fullback Willie le Roux, who picked up a hamstring strain in that win over the Lions on Wednesday.

An experienced and calming presence in the Boks team, the 31-year-old will be essential in the Test series. He played through severe shoulder pain at the World Cup and it would be a surprise if he’s not in the Springboks side for the first clash in Cape Town.

Nienaber and Erasmus would have been disappointed to see so few of their second-string players putting their hands up in yesterday’s South Africa A clash with the Bulls. There were some lively moments from the likes of Aphelele Fassi, but the forwards would have been very disappointed not to be dominant.

It was a contrast to the Lions’ last warm-up game against the Stormers, where several individuals made late pushes for inclusion in the Test team.

The sense at this stage is that the Springboks 23 that Nienaber names on Wednesday will have as familiar a look as possible to it, with their bench set to be even more important than ever given the lack of minutes in several players’ legs.

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