CRAIG LEWIS identifies several key overseas-based players who could add value to the Springboks’ cause at the 2019 World Cup.
‘So, Rassie, what can you tell us?’ This was the opening question lobbed light-heartedly at Rassie Erasmus during his first media engagement as South Africa’s new director of rugby. At that stage – in early-February – Allister Coetzee’s fate had yet to be sealed, and the press contingent in attendance at the launch of the SA Rugby Academy in Stellenbosch had been informed that certain questions would be off-limits.
However, Erasmus was all smiles as he chatted animatedly about the plans that were being put in place at various levels of South African rugby – specifically with the Springboks in mind. The ‘big ticket’, he insisted, was to find the correct recipe for a reversal in the Boks’ fortunes, while ensuring the team was thoroughly prepared for the 2019 World Cup.
And when it came to the opinion-dividing subject of overseas-based players, Erasmus was emphatic: ‘There are probably about 10 who can contribute to the Springboks. I think we have to make sure the best talent in South Africa will play, but if there are players outside that who are fit, still want to play and are conditioned suitably with the timing of the seasons, we will certainly consider them within the parameters that have been set. I’m definitely not going to overlook those players.’
Last year, SA Rugby announced a 30-cap eligibility ruling for overseas-based players, but that policy will not apply in 2019 – a World Cup year. Erasmus will also be allowed to pick overseas-based players who have less than 30 Test caps in 2018 if he gives SA Rugby valid reasons for their selection.
It’s understood that Erasmus has already identified which players he believes can add value to the Springboks. The former Bok loose forward has acknowledged the value of building a balanced squad that not only revolves around the run-on XV, but also prioritises experience and intellectual property.
He knows there are veterans who could play a crucial role in mentoring youngsters, others who can shore up some weak points when it comes to the depth of the squad and those who may be real contenders for a starting berth. We look at a select few who could come into the mix.
FRANS STEYN (MONTPELLIER)
After making his Springbok debut as a 19-year-old, it almost beggars belief that Steyn, in more than 10 years, has accrued only 56 Test caps. Various factors have contributed to his erratic involvement, but he is believed to be firmly on Erasmus’ radar. After a five-year absence from the national set-up, Steyn made three brief appearances off the bench against France last year, before once again disappearing into the wilderness. His powerful kicking game and unyielding physicality has made him an integral member of the Montpellier team, and although there have been conflicts between club and country commitments, he is known to still hold the Bok jersey close to his heart. Steyn will be 32 by the time of the 2019 World Cup, but he can certainly add value at centre or fullback.
JAN SERFONTEIN (MONTPELLIER)
During another dark season for Springbok rugby last year, Serfontein was one of the few bright lights. In 2015, the centre made just five appearances off the Bok bench. However, he made an impressive ‘comeback’
in 2017, with his immense work rate underlining his commitment to the cause, while sending out a stark reminder of his enduring class. Serfontein has linked up with Steyn at Montpellier, but he remains a leading contender for the Bok No 12 jersey.
COBUS REINACH (NORTHAMPTON)
When Reinach opted to leave the Sharks to join the Northampton Saints in England, he told SA Rugby magazine: ‘There were other overseas offers, but I didn’t even look at them if it seemed I had to put my Bok ambitions aside. I desperately want to play for the Springboks.’ The 28-year-old remains the sort of player who has to be afforded serious consideration at a time when there is a dearth of experienced scrumhalves. With a strong boot, deceptive pace and accurate service, Reinach remains an extremely underrated scrumhalf.
DUANE VERMEULEN (TOULON)
Vermeulen made a highly anticipated return to the Springbok set-up on the 2017 end-of-year tour and his impact was immense. The Toulon captain was called up after the Boks’ heaviest loss to Ireland on 11 November and his leadership after that was as influential as his on-field efforts. With Vermeulen back at No 8, the Boks rebounded with wins over France and Italy, before he had to return to his French club. A few weeks later, though, Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal confirmed that Vermeulen would leave France at the end of the European season to answer the call of his ‘national coach’. As it is, Erasmus is believed to have earmarked Vermeulen as a key player who could play a frontline role in 2019.
RUAN ACKERMANN (GLOUCESTER)
If Duane Vermeulen is set to play an important mentorship role in the lead-up to the World Cup, a player such as Ackermann would be a massive benefactor. The prodigiously talented 22-year-old has quickly established himself as one of the leading players at his English club after making the move from the Lions last year. Ackermann has made no secret of the fact he views playing for South Africa as the ‘first prize’, but he would also be open to qualifying for England if the Springbok door remains closed. It shouldn’t need to come to that – Ackermann has all the natural ability and physical attributes to earn a Bok call-up soon.
VINCENT KOCH (SARACENS)
The retirement of Julian Redelinghuys, and serious injuries suffered by Frans Malherbe and Coenie Oosthuizen last year, shone the spotlight on South Africa’s limited stocks in the all-important tighthead prop position. Wilco Louw has emerged as an exciting prospect, but Erasmus will know the importance of building depth beyond the 20-year-old. Those signs point to Koch, who started six Tests for the Boks in 2016, but fell on the wrong side of the eligibility ruling last year. However, it came as no surprise when rumours emerged that he was one of the overseas-based players Erasmus is keen to have in contention for the 2019 World Cup. At 27 years old, Koch should be reaching his prime as a tighthead prop and has been a consistently influential performer for Saracens.
BISMARCK DU PLESSIS (MONTPELLIER)
It’s something of a travesty that Du Plessis’ last Bok involvement came at the 2015 World Cup. Of course, South African rugby has been blessed with the emergence of Malcolm Marx, but the Boks missed the opportunity for the youngster to expedite his development under the guidance of a veteran such as Du Plessis. Just last September, World Cup-winning coach Jake White said there was no doubt Marx was going to be a great Springbok, but insisted ‘he would get there much quicker if he was given the baton by Bismarck du Plessis’. It’s a valid point, as the 33-year-old remains a typically imposing figure for Montpellier. Just think what could be achieved if Marx was given the licence to go out guns blazing for 60 minutes, before a fired-up Du Plessis was deployed. It could be doubly destructive.
PAT LAMBIE (RACING 92)
The 27-year-old has overcome concussion concerns to make a successful move to French club Racing 92, where he has featured at flyhalf, fullback and centre. If Lambie can remain fit and injury-free, it’s this sort of utility value that could well bring him back into Springbok consideration.
WILLIE LE ROUX (WASPS)
By all accounts the 41-Test cap fullback has made vast improvements to his all-round game since heading to English club Wasps, where the often challenging conditions have forced him to add skills to his repertoire. Le Roux shouldn’t remain forgotten at a time when there is a lack of experienced fullbacks in South African rugby.
FAF DE KLERK (SALE)
The former Lions scrumhalf has made an impressive impact since joining the Sale Sharks in England, with his consistent performances putting him firmly back on the Bok radar after falling out of favour last year. He remains the sort of fleet-footed halfback who could return to selection contention should the Boks opt to adopt a high-tempo playing style.
CHESLIN KOLBE (TOULOUSE)
The talented fullback has defied expectations since leaving the Stormers to link up with Toulouse, where he has quickly become a fan favourite as a result of his X factor on attack. If Rassie Erasmus is willing to back diminutive players, Kolbe could offer real value as an impact player.
JP PIETERSEN (TOULON)
Many think the 31-year-old’s Springbok days are behind him, but when one considers the lack of depth at wing, the 70-Test cap stalwart could just be a World Cup bolter. Still working in Pietersen’s favour is his size and strength under the high ball.
– This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale 23 April.