There’s no reason to believe the Springboks’ starting XV against the British & Irish Lions won’t be almost identical to the side that started the 2019 World Cup final, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Following the announcement of the Lions squad last week, plenty of debate has revolved around what Warren Gatland might be thinking in terms of his selections.
Yet, what of the Boks?
Despite not playing any international rugby since the World Cup final, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will know exactly what they can expect from the players available for selection.
The greatest reassurance will be that the majority of the players with familiarity of each other and the Boks’ approach under Erasmus-Nienaber will be available to call into a pre-tour camp.
The Springboks will spend several weeks in preparation camp together, and there are unlikely to be many selection ‘bolters’. There is just no need when considering what the squad composition looks likes.
If any reminders are needed, this was the starting lineup in Yokohama on 2 November 2019:
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Take a look at that backline. Handre Pollard is back from injury. Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Damian de Allende remain in world-class form.
Lukhanyo Am has probably banked more game time than any World Cup winner, while Willie le Roux and Makazole Mapimpi have been quietly but efficiently going about their business in the Japanese Top League.
Up front, things are only slightly less clear.
Mtawarira has retired, but Steven Kitshoff is an obvious and equally imposing replacement. Mbonambi isn’t in the form he was in 2019, but there’d be few doubts about his ability to rise to the occasion. Alternatively, the Boks could opt to start with destructive Malcolm Marx.
Eben Etzebeth is back from injury and an automatic selection at No 4, and the only real doubt hovers over De Jager’s race against time to prove his fitness before the Lions series.
Should he miss out, the Boks would probably turn to the ever-reliable Franco Mostert, while RG Snyman is expected to recover from injury just in time.
Injuries to the Springboks’ second rowers has been the one enduring concern, but it’s in this regard that the Erasmus-Nienaber brains trust has interestingly shown some interest in Montpellier’s Nico Janse van Rensburg.
Turning to the back row, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who is back from injury and hardly missing a step, would be surefire selections once again.
There has been some trepidation about the form of Kolisi, but the Bok coaches have an obvious reference point in terms of feeling reassured in this regard.
Just prior to the World Cup, Kolisi was battling injury and his phased return to play had to be expedited, but he got better and better as the tournament went on.
He’s now got four more games in the Rainbow Cup SA to continue rebuilding his form and confidence in order to ensure the Bok coaches won’t face the unenviable prospect of questioning the selection of the inspirational captain.
The Boks haven’t been together as a group for quite some time, but it’s not at all dissimilar to what the national team is accustomed to when they usually gather with limited time before the mid-year Tests.
Just think back to the 2018 June series against England, when a completely new-look Bok squad and coaching team effectively started from scratch, compressed a ton of information sharing and planning into the space of a few weeks, and still managed to overcome Eddie Jones’ more settled side.
Injuries, lack of international action, and limited time in camp will certainly make things challenging for the Springboks, and this series against the Lions is going to be incredibly closely fought.
However, this squad will surely benefit from the familiarity they have, the intellectual property retained from the two memorable 2018 and 2019 seasons under the Erasmus reign, and the fact there is set to be real continuity in selection from the World Cup.
It’s also unlikely the Springboks will stray very far from the sort of gameplan and strategies that served them so well during that tournament – think physicality, pack dominance, an aggressive defensive system and a sound kicking game – but there will also be subtleties and innovations that can be expected.
Erasmus and Nienaber always have a trick or two up their sleeves –from midfield mauls to carefully constructed set plays to identifying the ‘soul’ of the opposition – and it’s the little innovations that will be dished up against the Lions which I am most looking forward to seeing.
Yet, at the end of the day, don’t for a second discount the importance of being able to field a starting team that will barely differ from the group that demolished England 32-12 on that famous night in Yokohama.