A combination of injuries and a lack of game time leave the Springboks in a tricky position before the British & Irish Lions series, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.
The Lions series, in whatever form it may take place, is just around the corner. That much, at least, seems to be known. With postponement ruled a logistical impossibility, whichever way you cut it, the Springboks will play the Lions in a few months’ time.
That may be good news for SA rugby’s finances but perhaps less good news for the Springboks who, five months out from the series, find themselves seriously undercooked.
Of great concern will be the long-term injuries to key senior Springboks. World Player of the Year for 2019, Pieter-Steph du Toit, is still recovering almost a year later from an injury that nearly cost him his leg.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard is also suffering from a knee injury that has kept him out of action for months. Springbok locks Lood de Jager and RG Snyman have had their own long-term injury woes and remain sidelined.
Each of the above players were instrumental in the Bok’s successful World Cup campaign and remain crucial to the Bok cause. Although the feeling is that they may have recovered from their injuries by the time the Lions series starts, that only tells half the story.
Players returning from injury – particularly long-term injury – need time to find form. Take Siya Kolisi, for example. The Bok captain returned from injury only relatively recently and his form in the Currie Cup was patently lower than his usual standards. Conditioning is one element but contact readiness is another one entirely.
Then there is the question of the plethora of Japan-based Boks including Malcolm Marx, Jesse Kriel, Willie le Roux and Makazole Mapimpi. Japanese rugby has been as hamstrung by Covid-19 disruption as anywhere and they have only recently returned to playing.
The quality of rugby in Japan, with due respect, is not appropriate preparation for international rugby at the best of times. One needs only look at footage of RG Snyman’s stint there to see that the levels of physicality are pretty low. There’s a reason senior All Blacks describe a move to Japan as a ‘sabbatical’.
South Africa’s uninjured Boks based in Europe are thankfully better prepared. European Boks have been playing rugby long before its resumption in South Africa and the good news is that players like Cheslin Kolbe, Damian de Allende, Faf de Klerk and Eben Etzebeth have all been in fine form.
Domestically the picture is about as clear as mud. There have been some good performances, particularly by players such as Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi, but the overall quality of the rugby has been mediocre. If the skill levels on display in the Currie Cup (even by seasoned Springboks) are anything to go by, South Africa has its work cut out for it.
With a playing squad that is so geographically dispersed and at such varied levels of match preparedness, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will need to find a way to quickly unify a playing squad. The success in Japan was the result of months (if not years) of on- and off-the-field preparation – they will not have that luxury this time.
All the challenges faced by the Boks are compounded by the fact that the home nations are, contrastingly, extremely well prepared. The Boks have not played a game of rugby together since the Rugby World Cup final in 2019. By comparison England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have each played nine Tests in that time – and still have the Six Nations to come.
The demands of test rugby are incomparable to anything faced at club level. Fronting the Lions is a step beyond even that. Without Test-level preparation before the series, the Springboks are on a hiding to nothing.
Erasmus has given assurances that South Africa is doing everything in its power to arrange warm-up games against international opposition before the Lions series. However, with so little time and still nothing in place there is due cause for some trepidation at this time.