Jean de Villiers column: Building depth key for Springboks

Squad development must be a priority for the Springboks as they build towards the 2023 World Cup, writes former Springbok JEAN DE VILLIERS.

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Coaches often use the season that follows a World Cup to blood new players and experiment with new combinations. Developing depth across all positions with the next four-year cycle in mind, and ultimately the following global tournament, is usually one of their priorities.

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus had similar plans for the side after it won the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Initially, they hoped to use the matches against Scotland and Georgia – scheduled for June 2020 – to give fringe players as well as promising rookies some game time.

The subsequent Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour to Europe would have provided Nienaber with further opportunities to fine-tune his side ahead of the three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced South Africa to miss 20 months of rugby. This impacted on the preparations for the Lions series, and has also impacted on preparations for the 2023 World Cup. With the Lions series done and dusted, the Boks must make squad development a priority because time is running out.

South African rugby boasts plenty of depth in the front row. Thomas du Toit is a quality player with the ability to play on both sides of the scrum. While he’s focused on tighthead recently, he may have to move back to loosehead to get an opportunity with the Boks.

Apart from Frans Malherbe, Trevor Nyakane and Vincent Koch, there are young tightheads like Neethling Fouche of the Stoirmers and Khutha Mchunu of the Sharks who are staking a claim for higher honours.

Steven Kitshoff is well established while Ox Nche proved himself in the matches against Georgia and the Lions earlier this year. Joseph Dweba has grown a great deal at Bordeaux in France, and would bolster a hooker contingent that already includes Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx and Scarra Ntubeni.. Johan Grobbelaar of the Bulls and Andre-Hugo Venter of the Stormers also deserve a look in sooner rather than later.

We often speak about South Africa’s depth at lock, and perhaps that is down to the fact that four world-class players such as Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman will be available in the lead-up to the next World Cup. There’s a big of a gap between that group and the next set of locks, though.

Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg is yet to be tested at the highest level, and I’m still not convinced that the locks competing at the South African franchises can make the step up that is required.

South Africa is never short on options at loose forward. Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit will continue to be available, but the Boks need to explore alternative combinations in order to bolster the depth of the squad.

Marco van Staden will join Jasper Wiese at Leicester this season, and perhaps they will develop an understanding and synergy that can be eventually transferred to the Test stage. Marcell Coetzee, who missed out on the Lions series, could be another strong option in future.

In terms of rookies, I’d like to see Evan Roos of the Stormers and Phepsi Buthelezi of the Sharks getting a look. Eligh Louw was one of the most consistent performers for a dominant Bulls side before he was sidelined with injury.

The three scrumhalves that contributed to the 2019 World Cup victory are still available. Others to consider include Jaden Hendrikse of the Sharks.

I’ve been impressed by his energy and the way that he never shies away from confrontation. Sanele Nohamba, who was part of the wider Bok squad earlier this season, is another scrumhalf for the future.

Flyhalf is always a big talking point. It’s been two years since the 2019 World Cup, and we are still searching for a viable alternative to Handré Pollard.

Morné Steyn (37) has proved that he can sperform a role for the team, but I’d like to see more of the younger players putting their hands up. Curwin Bosch continues to develop and we should keep an eye on Jordan Hendrikse of the Lions.

Johan Goosen put on a show for the Bulls when they played the South Africa A side recently, and I’m sure that his versatility would be an asset to the Boks.

We’re past the point of looking at Damian Willemse as a starting flyhalf option. He did well when he was asked to slot in at inside centre during the Lions tour, and will be able to cover other backline positions if he is named on the bench.

Frans Steyn is unlikely to be available for the next World Cup, so perhaps the likes of Willemse and André Esterhuizen will be seen as alternatives to Damian de Allende at No 12. There’s also depth at No 13, too, with Jesse Kriel and Wandisile Simelane set to push Lukhanyo Am for that position.

Nienaber won’t want for options out wide either. Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi, S’bu Nkosi, Aphelele Fassi and Yaw Penxe were all part of the wider squad during the Lions tour. Warrick Gelant will also be an option when he comes back from injury.

The challenge for the Bok coaches, of course, is to develop players and to build combinations in a relatively short amount of time.