After a 2016 season to forget, CRAIG LEWIS identifies five youngsters the Springboks need to invest in on the road to the 2019 World Cup.
As the sun set in Florence after the Springboks’ first defeat to Italy on 19 November, it rather aptly epitomised one of the darkest days in South African rugby history.
Immediately after that historic result, the dejected group of Springboks gathered in a team huddle in the middle of the Artemio Franchi Stadium. As the TV camera panned across the players’ faces, the pictures were worth a thousand words. To a man, the Springboks looked completely and utterly shattered after suffering undoubtedly their most embarrassing defeat of the year.
Among those in the huddle, 124-Test cap stalwart Bryan Habana took a moment to address those around him. He reassured his teammates to stick together and fight back. He reminded them that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.
Yet, the big question remains: Is there any hope on the horizon for the Boks? Do they have the players capable of following Habana’s advice and pulling themselves out of a dark hole?
A pessimistic view might suggest an emphatic ‘no’, but despite the pall of negativity that hung over the Boks throughout 2016, there is reason to believe the answer could well be ‘yes’.
With three years still to prepare for the next World Cup, there remains an opportunity for the Boks to invest in a talented youth brigade they believe can take them through to the global event in Japan in 2019.
And at a time of uncertainty for the national side, what should be a source of some comfort is the fact there are still untainted diamonds among the rough.
Here we look at five shining young prospects under the age of 23 who unequivocally boast the potential to spark a bright new dawn for the Boks.
Malcolm Marx (Hooker)
In the cauldron of Christchurch, Marx made his Springbok debut on a rather inauspicious occasion as the Boks slumped to a 41-13 defeat against the All Blacks in mid-September. Yet, in one memorable moment, Marx provided a glimpse into the future with a bullocking run that broke open the All Blacks’ defence.
Although a couple of Marx’s lineout feeds did go astray, it was that powerful run that served as a stark reminder of the ball-carrying abilities he demonstrated to such devastating effect throughout the 2016 Super Rugby season.
Marrying pace with power, Marx scored four tries, completed 14 clean breaks, beat 18 defenders and ran 412m, while also winning 11 turnovers.
It was this all-round contribution that understandably saw comparisons drawn between the burly 22-year-old and highly-regarded Bok hardman Bismarck du Plessis.
However, when one considers that the 32-year-old Du Plessis was overlooked last season and Adriaan Strauss has retired, there is a clear-cut opening for a player such as Marx to step into the breach.
Already in 2016, there were signs of the youngster beginning to blaze his own trail. After firmly establishing himself as the Lions’ first-choice hooker in Super Rugby, Marx featured for the SA A side against the England Saxons before going on to make his Test debut in the Rugby Championship, while he also featured off the bench in the season-ending clash against Wales.
After a breakthrough 2016 season for the youngster, consistency will be key as he looks to back that up with another dominant Super Rugby showing that would cement his place as the prime candidate to claim the vacant Bok No 2 jersey.
PLAYER TO REPLACE
Strauss started at hooker in all 12 of the Boks’ Tests in 2016, but he has now hung up his boots after 66 Tests. Although Strauss battled to find his best form in an embattled Bok team, he has left a considerable vacancy that will need to be filled.
Jean-Luc du Preez (Flank)
Du Preez beat his brothers to Bok honours in 2016. Robert, Dan and Jean-Luc du Preez were all recognised as Springboks in the making from as early as their school days, with the latter living up to that expectation when he made his Bok debut off the bench in their end-of-year Test against Wales.
Although Dan and Robert certainly still look destined for higher honours, Jean-Luc completed a remarkable meteoric rise during a 2016 season that saw him progress from Super Rugby debutant to Springbok within the space of nine months.
The talented 21-year-old made a considerable impression for the Sharks during Super Rugby (completing some 987 minutes of game-time), while making 90 carries, 192 running metres and beating 15 defenders.
However, it wasn’t just his ball-carrying strengths that caught the eye, but his ability to contest at the breakdown, offload in the tackle and provide considerable physicality at the collisions (he executed 136 tackles in Super Rugby).
Du Preez’s impressive form saw him earn a call-up to the SA A side for matches against the England Saxons in June, while his versatility made him a valuable acquisition to the Bok squad for their end-of-year tour.
Having the ability to play at openside or blindside flank, and to provide cover at No 8, Du Preez offered important utility value at a time when the Boks’ loose-trio stocks were considerably depleted due to injury.
He has now had his first taste of Bok rugby, and is undoubtedly one of those rare talents South African rugby needs to manage and carefully invest in for the future.
PLAYER TO REPLACE
Although Alberts made a return to the Bok team last year despite initially being overlooked, his role was relatively limited. The 32-year-old is unlikely to play much more of a leading role as attention turns towards the next World Cup, but his physical presence at blindside flank won’t be easily replaced.
Handré Pollard (Flyhalf)
There is no player the Boks missed more in 2016 than the 22-year-old. Despite his tender age, it should not be forgotten that Pollard established himself as the Springboks’ first-choice flyhalf from 2014.
He was the flyhalf general who former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer invested in at a time of need and more often than not he delivered the goods, while he displayed maturity beyond his years at the 2015 World Cup.
Boasting physicality, strong distribution, an eye for attack and an educated boot, Pollard is the sort of all-round flyhalf the Boks were crying out for in 2016.
Unfortunately, serious injuries sidelined him throughout 2016, but he made a return to training last November, and there’s no doubt he will be determined to make up for lost time.
In his absence, neither Elton Jantjies nor Pat Lambie were able to make the most of their starting opportunities at flyhalf and by all accounts that is still a position that is very much up for grabs.
However, with 20 Test caps already to his name, Pollard is the type of player the Boks would surely have earmarked to play a leading role at the next two World Cups. Beyond his considerable on-field abilities, he is also a strong leader and is widely regarded as a potential future captain for the Boks.
After such a long time out of action due to injury, this Super Rugby season will be an important one for the multitalented pivot as he looks to rediscover top form, but there is no doubt he is the player who can make the No 10 jersey his own.
PLAYER/S TO REPLACE
Elton Jantjies/Pat Lambie
Considering Jantjies and Lambie are both just 26 years old, their Bok days are hardly over, but the fact remains that both failed to take a firm hold of the Bok No 10 jersey in 2015. There is now a desperate need for a confident general to step into the breach.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Centre)
The continued omission of Janse van Rensburg from the Bok team in 2016 was arguably the most questionable selection decision of last season.
Despite making an irresistible impression for the Lions in Super Rugby (scoring 10 tries, completing 654 running metres, beating 39 defenders and executing 19 clean breaks), it wasn’t until the final Test of the year that he won inclusion in the Bok team.
In the end, Janse van Rensburg's efforts were in vain as the Springboks slumped to a disappointing loss against Wales, but there is no doubt this could be just the beginning of a long Test career for the youngster. Revealingly, Allister Coetzee conceded at the end of the season that he should have been more willing to back Lions players and youngsters, with Janse van Rensburg certainly one of the players he would have had in mind in this regard.
Although Janse van Rensburg has been most widely recognised for his strong running game, it is also his unheralded offloading ability that adds another weapon to his attacking arsenal, while he is fearless on defence.
The sturdily-built centre is now back with the Lions, and after a breakthrough 2016 season, his focus will be on ensuring he is able to replicate that sort of form once again.
After finishing the international season as the holder of the Bok No 12 jersey, it’s a position he won’t want to relinquish after having to bide his time before belatedly earning a Test cap last year.
However, at 22 years old, youth is on his side and he’s yet another player who could have a key role to play in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup and even beyond.
PLAYER TO REPLACE
Damian de Allende
Although De Allende started in eight Tests in 2015, he failed to replicate the sort of form he displayed in 2015. At just 25-year-old, of course he shouldn’t be written off, but he did leave the No 12 jersey up for grabs.
Warrick Gelant (Fullback)
Throughout the 2016 season, fullback proved to be a highly problematic position for the Springboks. Although incumbent Willie le Roux started all three Tests against Ireland in June, he battled to find his best form, while Johan Goosen also endured mixed results when he was installed at fullback for the majority of the Rugby Championship.
Coetzee also turned to Lambie for a couple of Tests, but he never looked completely comfortable in his less-preferred position.
It’s clear the Boks are desperately crying out for someone to firmly establish themselves at fullback and Gelant could well be that man.
The former SA U20 star impressed during the early stages of the 2016 Super Rugby season, while he was earmarked for a place in the Springbok Sevens squad for the Rio Olympics last August, but unfortunately his year was ultimately disrupted by a series of injuries.
It was an untimely blow considering Coetzee had also mentioned before the start of the international season that he was a player who was very much on the Bok radar.
The high regard in which Gelant is held is understandable when one considers his swift progression through the junior ranks to emerge as the Bulls’ first-choice fullback at the start of the 2016 season. It was during this time that he impressed as a dangerous runner from broken play, while proving to be reliable under the high ball, with a solid kicking game to boot.
At just 21 years old, Gelant has a bright future and should he remain injury-free, he’s the sort of player the Boks must look to invest in sooner rather than later.
PLAYER TO REPLACE
Willie le Roux
It’s been some time since Le Roux reached the highs of the 2014 season when he was widely regarded as the best fullback in world rugby. Having now headed overseas, the 27-year-old’s selection will be increasingly difficult to justify in the immediate future.
– This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine