The Springboks’ Rugby Championship squad is light on experience as well as genuine Test options at blindside flank, inside centre and fullback, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Hurricanes thumped the Lions 20-3 in the Super Rugby final in Wellington on Saturday. Some will argue that travel fatigue as well as the wet weather were largely responsible for the Lions’ substandard showing. More erudite observers will give the Hurricanes their due following a classy defensive and kicking performance that made all the difference in a championship match.
The Hurricanes were both physically and mentally superior to the Lions. Of course, what served the Kiwis’ cause was the number of experienced players in their ranks.
Some of the Hurricanes have already won World Cups and Rugby Championships. Others have experienced the pressure and demands of finals rugby before, having featured in the 2015 decider that was won by the Highlanders.
By comparison, none of the Lions players had featured in a Super Rugby final prior to Saturday. Not one of the Lions had featured in a World Cup playoff or started a Rugby Championship match.
The final at the Cake Tin served as a reminder of an uncomfortable truth: South African rugby still has a long way to go before it can be compared to that of New Zealand.
Bok coach Allister Coetzee touched on that very subject in the buildup to the Super Rugby final. While Coetzee went out of his way to praise the Lions' progress, he admitted that South African rugby is not blessed with an abundance of world-class players at present. It’s a big problem in an era where injuries are commonplace and well-stocked squads of 35 or more are needed to win major titles.
The announcement of the 31-man Bok squad for the Rugby Championship seemed to serve as a secondary statement. Again, many may concern themselves with the names on that list and judge any player in question by how he has fared this past season. More should be read, however, into the number of caps that correspond to each of those names.
Run through the list of names and Test caps, and you can only reach the conclusion that the Boks are in trouble. Their goals for the 2016 Rugby Championship will be modest at best.
Yes, youngsters need to receive opportunities. Sure, certain players need to be given more time to adapt to Test rugby. That said, a squad that has too many players in these fledgling categories isn’t really in a position to win tournaments.
A mere eight players in the 31-man Bok squad have more than 25 caps. Only four, namely Bryan Habana, Beast Mtawarira, Adriaan Strauss and Morné Steyn, have played 50 or more Tests. As many as 16 players in the squad have 10 or fewer caps.
One also has to remember that the 2016 season is different in that Coetzee, and indeed all South African coaches, are under pressure to pick more players of colour.
Coetzee reminded reporters of his transformation mandate in the wake of the narrow win against Ireland at Ellis Park this past June. The Bok coach has to take transformation into account when selecting his greater squads and match-day teams.
And yet, when one takes a closer look at who has made the cut for the coming Rugby Championship, one cannot help but feel that the Boks are more than a little thin in key positions.
No specialist fullback has been named in the squad. This suggests that Johan Goosen, who started one Test against Italy at No 15 in 2014, but has since played most of his rugby at centre for Racing 92 in France, could be an option. Ruan Combrinck is another who appears to have the kicking game and aerial skills to be a success at fullback, but it must be a concern that he has played the bulk of the 2016 season at wing.
The unavailability of Schalk Burger as well as the injury to Siya Kolisi sees the Boks devoid of a genuine blindside option. Oupa Mohoje is certainly not in the Jerome Kaino-mould.
Outside of Mohoje, though, Coetzee doesn’t have many ‘specialist’ options. Indeed, by the time the Boks battle Australia and New Zealand in September, Coetzee may have to consider moving Pieter-Steph du Toit or even Duane Vermeulen to No 7. The Boks will need a pack that possesses the necessary balance and grunt in those physically demanding clashes.
This squad includes four outside centre options (Lionel Mapoe, Jesse Kriel, Juan de Jongh and Goosen), but only one genuine No 12 in Damian de Allende. If the Stormers centre succumbs to injury before the more demanding clashes in Australasia, Coetzee may be forced to play two No 13s in midfield.
SA Rugby has made it clear that the 31-man squad announced on Saturday is for the first two Tests of the Rugby Championship campaign. This suggests that more players, possibly those performing in overseas leagues and even the more experienced JP Pietersen and Willie le Roux, could be brought into the mix ahead of the fixtures against Australia and New Zealand.
But if Coetzee really does intend to use influential players like Pietersen, Le Roux, and even the likes of Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn, who were on fire in the recent European season, one cannot understand why he hasn’t recalled them immediately. The current Bok side is light on experience and in need of seasoned campaigners who can add value to the crunch matches.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images