As the British & Irish Lions series looms, SA Rugby magazine breaks down the depth in the Boks back three.
While nimble-footed Rosko Specman was jinking and kicking and conjuring his way to the try of the season in South Africa, he was unwittingly adding to a spicy sub-plot quietly running through the game.
As Specman performed his heroics for the Cheetahs against the Stormers in Super Rugby Unlocked in November, he not only confirmed the tremendous depth of South Africa’s fast men out wide, he gave a jolt to those who believe the incumbents are impossible to shift.
South Africa has always possessed raw-boned athletes among the back three, but never before has the game enjoyed such vastness of riches where the talent is not only fast, but imaginative, dexterous and cunning. Call it the Kolbe effect, which has given men with dancing feet the liberty to embellish pace with panache.
No one is saying that the World Cup back three deserve anything but our undying devotion (and selection), but given the crazy state of the world, rugby’s inbuilt rate of attrition and the vagaries of form, it’s just as well that South Africa’s stock of wings and fullbacks continues to thrive ahead of the tour by the British & Irish Lions next July.
Much like a World Cup, winning a series against the Lions can sustain a team for years, commercially and emotionally. It gives teams cachet and bragging rights internationally, no small thing given how difficult it is to prevail.
The men in possession are the gilt-edged trio of Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Willie le Roux. Not forgetting Sbu Nkosi, who also has a World Cup medal to go with his reputation as one of the most lethal finishers on planet rugby.
Warrick Gelant, the fullback understudy to Le Roux, is also in the frame, having turned in several impressive cameos for the Stormers during Super Rugby Unlocked.
Perhaps the most curious contender among the bunch is Frans Steyn, the evergreen veteran who will be 34 by the time the Lions come to town. He faces the rousing prospect of twice facing the Lions, having done so in 2009, and his chances of a repeat must be decent.
Given his ability to play anywhere in the backline, except for scrumhalf, he’s valuable insurance for coach Jacques Nienaber. Playing for the Cheetahs, he showed flashes of steel, constantly pressing the gainline and forcing defenders to stay sharp.
Of the rest, the emergence of the new breed (and some old stagers) is heartening and ensures that complacency can’t have a home among the serving Springboks.
In this context, we look beyond the players who were involved at the World Cup to identify the other back three contenders.
The 22-year-old Sharks recruit was among the flashiest of players on the local scene last year, his fast, lean body wreaking havoc on defences. Coupled with marvellous hands and a long kick, the former Dale College pupil was primed for a Bok blazer. Then Covid hit, as did a shoulder injury, which has reined in his ambitions.
But Fassi is too good, too driven to be held back for long.
Let it not be a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’ for the 22-year-old, now playing for Harlequins in London after a bright apprenticeship at the Lions. Given his form at the Lions – he was the best player until the action shut down prematurely in March – he’s a strong contender. Fast and stocky with an eye for an opening, he’s long been on track with runs for SA under-20 and SA Schools. He played flyhalf at Jeppe Boys (and SA Schools), so his versatility is a bonus.
He has been on the radar since playing for the Baby Boks three years ago, but shot to prominence when starring in the Springbok Showdown earlier this year. Having drawn rave reviews at the Kings, he took his opportunity on the big stage and stood out for his industry on the right wing. The Sharks have always bought shrewdly, so when Penxe (23) was lured to Durban several months ago, you knew something was up. Now in an environment where the wings are world class, he has the opportunity to thrive.
What’s not to love about Rosko Specman, who seems to play for his enjoyment and ours? He is a try-scoring machine, his small size and stepping making him a defender’s nightmare. He joins this list late – he’s 31 – having parked his 15-man ambitions for a thriving Sevens career that culminated in an Olympic bronze medal in 2016. The peripatetic left wing has had stints at the Sharks, Bulls, Pumas and Cheetahs, always tormenting tacklers, always offering surprises.
He is another Sevens product, having honed his skills on the international circuit before hitching his wagon to the Bulls. There, he was probably surprised to discover a team with one eye on extravagance as they threw the ball about under wily coach Jake White. It suited Arendse (24), who thrived with pace and space, catching the eye. At 75kg, he’s no wrecking ball, but throws himself about and troubles defences anyway. He scored a sensational 90m try against the Sharks earlier this season, which is just as well after he slipped up by missing the plane to Cape Town for the Springbok Showdown. It was an unusual blip in his otherwise perfect sense of timing.
The Cheetahs right wing produced a supreme double act with Specman during the Super Rugby Unlocked season. He will never be mistaken for a freight train, but he’s Eastern Province stock, thus tough and dependable. Jaer (25) represented the Kings when he turned pro, but has come into his own at the Cheetahs. He has solid credentials, having represented SA Schools and under-20s, and also stood out in the Springbok Showdown.
Tambwe first announced himself in 2018 when he blitzed the Stormers with four tries in the Super Rugby tournament for the Lions. Unusually, he wasn’t allowed to settle in at the Lions, playing mostly off the bench, so it was no surprise when he was lured to Durban earlier this year. Born in the DRC and having been schooled in Johannesburg, Tambwe (23) is every inch an athlete: he’s lean, long-limbed, fast and agile. Interestingly, his schoolboy mentor and coach was Andrew van Zyl, the former EFC heavyweight champion. Both big units, both dangerous.
- • Lions wing Courtnall Skosan (29) is handy to have in the back pocket, given his experience, having played for SA. He’ll never let the side down.
- • Up the road, in Pretoria, right wing Travis Ismaiel (28) of the Bulls has long played under the radar, notwithstanding his lone Bok cap against Wales in 2018, and would always do a solid job if required.
- • Teammate David Kriel (21) used his opportunity in the recent season to draw attention to himself. Tall and rangy, the fullback runs hard and thrives in broken play.
- • Sergeal Petersen seems to have been around forever, but he’s only 25. He’s another who can cause damage, although a recent quadriceps injury has knocked back his hopes.
- • Seabelo Senatla (27) is another who has been out injured, but with his wicked pace and Sevens smarts he will always be in the conversation.
- • Young gun Mnombo Zwelindaba (20) is nominally a wing – he prefers centre – but his versatility earns him a mention. He’s been in SA Rugby’s age group structures for several years and much is expected of the beefy former Junior Bok as he earns his keep with Western Province.