Rassie Erasmus needs to recruit more experienced players who can add value at the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Jake White made it crystal clear from the outset of his Springbok coaching tenure that he intended to take an experienced squad to the 2007 World Cup. Over a period of four years, White backed a host of gifted youngsters and developed a world-class team. The average age of the Bok players competing in that 2007 World Cup final (26) was relatively low, but the collective number of caps (668) was high for the time.
Experience, as White and any other elite coach will tell you, is crucial in big games and especially in a World Cup final. History, however, reminds us that youth is an important factor at these tournaments, and the team that goes on to lift the trophy is the one with the right mix of wise heads and fearless youngsters.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has certainly done his part for the development of the national squad during his first year in charge. He handed 19 players their Test debuts across the June Tests and Rugby Championship and took the uncapped trio of JD Schickerling, Ruhan Nel and Sergeal Petersen on the end-of-year tour in November, although they did not get any game time.
Erasmus has a plan for these players that will benefit the Boks in future, perhaps at the 2023 World Cup. Come the tournament in France, South Africa will have plenty of youthful options as well as stalwarts such as Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and a few others in the senior core.
Striking the right balance between youth and experience at the 2019 World Cup, however, may prove more challenging. The 23-man Bok squad that competed against the All Blacks in Pretoria included nine players who were 25 or younger, and nine with 20 caps or fewer. Wise heads were in short supply when one considers that only four of the 23 players had 50 or more caps and only one of those four had played 100 games for his country. Inexperience certainly cost the Boks in the second stanza when they conceded 26 points in the final half hour. Ultimately, they lost a game they should have won.
Compare the Bok stats to those of the All Blacks. The two teams will meet during the pool stage of the 2019 World Cup, and it’s likely the winner of that match will go on to top the group and secure an easier path in the playoffs. That game should be every bit as tense as a knockout fixture. The All Blacks look set to have the edge in terms of experience.
The Boks went into the match in Pretoria with 671 caps, while the All Blacks started the game with a whopping 973. Three Test centurions in Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks started for New Zealand, and five others with 50 caps or more were in the 23. While the average age of the side was 27, coach Steve Hansen backed the 21-year-old Rieko Ioane and relative newcomers like Shannon Frizell and Richie Mo’unga.
Consider what that All Blacks side may look like by the time it meets the Boks in Yokohama next year. Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty will have joined the 50-Test club. Youngsters who have featured regularly in the starting side in 2018 – such as Scott Barrett and Ioane, who are both younger than 25 – will have enough caps and experience of big games to make a telling contribution.
The Boks may be a bit wiser for their experiences in 2018. That said, it’s been clear that they could do with a few more seasoned players to balance the scales. At the moment, the side is stacked with players who are young and inexperienced as far as Test rugby is concerned.
Erasmus has an eye on players plying their trade in Europe – Bismarck du Plessis (79 Tests), Frans Steyn (56), Pat Lambie (56) and several other veterans – who he may consider sooner rather than later. The Bok coach has already recalled Duane Vermeulen, Willie le Roux, Francois Louw and Schalk Brits, as much for their experience as their physical abilities.
Balance is the key word here. The All Blacks team that won the 2011 World Cup boasted an average age of 28, while the side that clinched the 2015 decider was on average closer to 29. There were nine players over the age of 30 in the 23-man squad that beat the Wallabies at Twickenham, but Hansen made room for a few special youngsters such as Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett – who were all under the age of 25.
There’s enough time to build a balanced side before the 2023 World Cup. With regard to the 2019 showpiece, however, Erasmus may need to look north for more answers in the coming months.