Cape Town - The question of where Damian Willemse will be deployed by Western Province is just one of several intriguing national points of interest that will add spice to the closing stages of the Currie Cup, SuperSport.com reports.
Some previous Springbok coaches have under-valued the role the domestic competition can play in keeping fringe national squad members sharp in preparation for possible deployment at international level. Too often in the past players have come back from injury and been thrown in at the deep end by going straight back into the Bok squad, or alternatively players who have gone on tour and not played in the starting team have ended up becoming rusty because they have been denied playing times.
If you want a list of players who have gone on an end of year tour off a low playing base it probably wouldn't be difficult to draw one up. But under Rassie Erasmus' coaching things have been different, and as Western Province assistant coach Dawie Snyman has pointed out, there is good reason for the Cape team to expect the four Boks that have been cleared to play against the Blue Bulls on Saturday to be easily reabsorbed back into the system.
"Most of those guys have played quite a bit for us this season," said Snyman of a list that is made up of Wilco Louw, Bongi Mbonambi, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Damian Willemse.
"Wilco has played a good couple of games for us, Notshe played the opening game against the Cheetahs as well as the following game against the Pumas and also played against Griquas, Bongi played for us in a few of those games, and Damian played against Griquas. Ruhan Nel is also currently a member of the Bok squad and he has played every game for us this season.
"So it's not as if they are coming back from outside and they don't know what we are busy with and don't understand our systems. Most of the guys in the team have been doing well in their absence and we have momentum, but the Boks have played and won't be coming back as strangers to their team-mates or to our playing style."
That hasn't always been the case. The 2011 WP and Sharks teams might blame their defeats at the hands of the Golden Lions in the semi-final and final respectively to the fact that they boasted less continuity than a Lions team that featured very few Boks. The Sharks felt they were also undone in 2009 by the return of a phalanx of experienced Boks who had just won the Tri-Nations and a series against the British and Irish Lions but didn't easily fit back into a team of youngsters who had done well to top that year's Currie Cup log. They got knocked out in the semi-final stage by a Cheetahs team that boasted fewer star players and therefore greater continuity.
The position that WP are in is shared by the Blue Bulls, who had Marco van Staden and Ivan van Zyl play for them at stages in the Currie Cup, as well as Embrose Papier. Trevor Nyakane, out for much of the time since Super Rugby because of injury, is also available to play for them at Loftus and his readiness to tour with the Boks at the end of the year will be subjected to a good test by the strong WP scrum that will feature two regular match day Bok front-row forwards in the form of Louw and Mbonambi.
For the Lions, who need to beat the Pumas in Nelspruit in the final weekend of the league stage to confirm their semi-final place, it is a bit more complicated, though they should be overjoyed to have Elton Jantjies and Aphiwe Dyantyi back in the mix for the final three weeks of the domestic season.
Dyantyi really has nothing to prove after performing so well at international level this year, but Jantjies could do with the chance to get some game time under his belt and perhaps regain a bit of confidence. It will be Jantjies' first involvement in the Currie Cup for a while as he has played in Japan for the past few South African off-seasons but won't be doing that this year. Ditto for another Bok released to play Currie Cup, Lionel Mapoe.
The centre has played quite a bit for the Lions this year and the almost Super Rugby strength backline the Lions have available to them is their biggest hope of overcoming their recent form slump to challenge for a domestic trophy they last won in 2015. Remember too that they have additional players with international experience such as Ross Cronje, Courtnall Skosan and Andries Coetzee available to them.
The Lions' challenge will be to win the forward battle so that those players can be given the opportunity to wreak havoc on opposing defensive systems.
The Sharks only have Subisiso Nkosi back from the current national squad but you have to factor in Thomas du Toit, who was not on the list of players released by Erasmus on Tuesday because he has been excluded since the Australasian leg of the Rugby Championship. He will be eager to show in the showpiece closing stages of the South African provincial season that he should be on the November tour.
Then there is Coenie Oosthuizen, who is making his way back from injury, and last but certainly not least the imposing figure of Jean-Luc du Preez. The Sharks flanker is a special player and will add X-factor to a Sharks team that has run hot and cold so far in the Currie Cup.
But WP have been the form team up to now and it will be interesting to see how coach John Dobson juggles the national interest, which you'd imagine would imply a requirement for Willemse to play more at fullback, and his own interests. It is not that Dobson would have a problem with playing Willemse in the No 15 jersey as that is where he played in last year's final in Durban, but Dillyn Leyds at fullback with SP Marais and Sergeal Petersen on the wings has been a back three combination that has worked for him.
Josh Stander has done well behind a solid forward platform as the flyhalf and it would make sense for him to continue there in the high pressure knock-out phases if the main emphasis, as it should be, is building depth for Super Rugby.
But Province, like every other union, are desperate to win the Currie Cup for financial reasons and once Dobson has looked at all his options he might feel that playing Willemse at pivot with Leyds at the back is the way to go about doing that.