The Springboks need to build long-term depth if they are to mount a successful defence of their World Cup title in 2023 writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
The British & Irish Lions tour has come and gone, and it’s time for the Springbok coach to cast his gaze ahead to the 2023 World Cup and beyond. Over the coming months, Jacques Nienaber will need to start experimenting with different combinations and addressing the problems areas with the long-term aim of building an experienced squad to peak at the next global tournament.
To be fair to Nienaber and company, they have long spoken about squad development as a priority and are only in the present predicament due to the impact of the global pandemic.
In 2020, the Covid-19 situation in South Africa prevented the Boks from hosting matches or travelling abroad. The upshot is that Nienaber and his staff did not have the opportunity to spend four to five months in camp with the players. They were robbed of the chance to gauge promising rookies and combinations over a period of 13 Tests.
There was no room to experiment across a Lions series that the Boks were desperate to win. Every selection was made with the short-term goal in mind. And given the importance of that series, in that it’s second only to a World Cup tournament and takes place in South Africa once every 12 years, one can understand why the focus was so narrow.
Now that the Lions series is over, Nienaber must be bold and consider what can be done – and what personnel should be employed – to take the Boks forward.
The Boks possess one of the most well-balanced backlines in world rugby. Subtract one or two key players, however, and the combination does appear somewhat diluted.
At this stage, South Africa don’t have like-for-like replacements for fullback Willie le Roux, flyhalf Handre Pollard and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk. These players were backed for the big matches in 2018 and 2019, and were considered first choice in their positions going into the Lions series.
If all three broke down simultaneously before a big Test, could South Africa realistically expect to prevail?
Nienaber has been open and honest about Le Roux, and the fact the fullback isn’t getting any younger. There’s no denying that Le Roux played a crucial role in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup and that he was influential in the recent Lions series. It’s patently clear he still has something to offer in the short term. He will be 34 at the next World Cup, though, and there’s no guarantee he will be as sharp as he is now.
Even if Le Roux does push on, Nienaber would do well to develop an alternative with the skill and experience to amplify the Bok gameplan in a similar manner.
Aphelele Fassi is highly rated by the Bok coaches, and would have played more Tests in the lead-up to the Lions series if not for the pandemic. Fassi made his debut on the wing against Georgia this past July and made an immediate impact when he scored a try. If he’s going to be considered as a viable alternative to Le Roux, however, he must receive an extended opportunity in the No 15 jersey.
A few other players might have something to say about that, though. Damian Willemse has been in the Bok mix for three years. He has started at fullback for the Boks before and was used in this position – albeit from the bench – at certain stages of the Lions series.
Right now, Willemse is the utility back tasked with wearing the No 23 jersey. With Frans Steyn unlikely to feature in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup, Willemse could occupy that spot on the bench and allow South Africa to persist with the tactic of stacking their reserve contingent with six forwards and two backs.
There may come a time in the near future when Le Roux breaks down or loses form. Nienaber must get ahead of the game, so to speak, and explore Fassi and Willemse as starting fullback options. Warrick Gelant, who was Le Roux’s understudy for much of 2018 and 2019, may also come into the conversation once he completely recovers from a serious leg injury.
The Boks have been fortunate that Pollard has been fit and available for the biggest matches staged over the past three years. There was a time in 2016 and 2017 when he was sidelined by injuries and illness, and it was during that period that South Africa failed to field another flyhalf with the same skillset and composure.
Elton Jantjies has never replicated his Super Rugby form on the Test stage. He will be 33 by the time the next global tournament is staged in 2023. At 37, Morne Steyn is another flyhalf for the short term rather than for the future.
Nienaber needs to back one of the younger flyhalves sooner rather than later. Perhaps Sharks’ Curwin Bosch deserves a chance to show whether he has what it takes.
Johan Goosen is back in South Africa and – as shown by his dazzling all-round performance for the Bulls against South Africa A this past July – brings plenty to that position. Like Willemse, Goosen also has the ability to play centre, wing and fullback and could be a valuable player on a six-two bench.
De Klerk has taken his game forward since the 2019 World Cup and remains South Africa’s best scrumhalf. While the Boks have some good alternatives in Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach, questions remain as to whether these players have the tactical ability to control and manage games. Nienaber will only get those answers if he backs Jantjies and Reinach to start a few of the biggest Tests – against the likes of New Zealand or England – over the next two years.
Sanele Nohamba and Jaden Hendrikse were both drafted into the wider Bok squad across the Lions series. While they were called up to cover the three World Cup winners in the short term, they could both have big roles to play in future.
Will these players enjoy the necessary game time to be considered for the 2023 World Cup squad, or are they being groomed for the cycle that follows? That remains to be seen.
Either way, it’s good to see that these talented youngsters are being exposed to the national structures and systems, and that they are being prepared for the next step.
The South African rugby community went into mourning after it was confirmed that Duane Vermeulen had sustained a serious ankle injury on the eve of the Lions tour. Any team would struggle to replace a player of his experience, ability and leadership. For the Boks, the loss was keenly felt.
Erasmus used Warren Whiteley and Vermeulen at No 8 over the course of the 2018 season. He also used Francois Louw in that position in 2018 and 2019, and Louw’s ability to play 6, 7, and 8 was one of the reasons he was backed to go to the World Cup and fulfil an important role on the bench.
Whiteley was forced to take an indefinite break from the game after a long battle with injury. Louw retired after the World Cup. When Vermeulen broke down earlier this year, the Boks battled to fill the gap.
Jasper Wiese, who was one of the standout players across the 2020-21 Premiership, deserved to be drafted into the Bok squad ahead of the Lions series. The Leicester star did a solid job for the Boks at No 8, and deserves more opportunities going forward.
While Vermeulen still has something to give in the short term, it would be a stretch to suggest he will boast the same power and influence at the next World Cup, where he will be 37. The onus is on Nienaber to further develop Wiese and other alternatives such as Dan du Preez. Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who was also injured before the Lions series, could offer another exciting option in the back row.
The four locks that starred at the 2019 World Cup are all young and good enough to play through to the next global tournament in France. The Boks aren’t short for experienced hooker and tighthead prop options, and there are a number of youngsters knocking on the respective doors.
Steven Kitshoff played his 50th Test in the second match of the Lions series. The Boks are fortunate that they have another excellent loosehead in Ox Nche, and ultimately that they have two multi-skilled props in their match 23.
Thomas du Toit has been celebrated for his ability to play on both sides of the scrum, and perhaps the time is right for him to focus on loosehead with the aim of providing excellent support to Kitshoff and Nche.
Nienaber should be looking to develop the side to the point where he can field two world-class tight fives in the same match 23. After developing his squad in the preceding season, Erasmus enjoyed this luxury at the 2019 World Cup. The inclusion of a second tight five and ultimately a six-two bench split went a long way towards winning the tournament for South Africa.