There is enough burgeoning talent to suggest the future looks bright for South African rugby, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
Damian Willemse made his Rugby World Cup debut in Japan recently.
It’s a startling reality that during the previous tournament he was writing exams at Paul Roos Gymnasium, a wide-eyed schoolboy no doubt dreaming of possibilities beyond the school walls.
That’s just the point. For all the heroics produced by the class of 2019, the next bundle of tournament prodigies are probably still at school or not long removed from one or other learning faculty.
World Cups always herald the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. As newer players find their footing, more grizzled ones shuffle off. The likelihood of stalwarts like Beast Mtawarira, Schalk Brits, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn – all the wrong side of 30 – keeping it together for the World Cup in France in 2023 is as likely as Jerome Garces being given the freedom of Cape Town. It won’t happen.
Thankfully, much of the spine of the Springbok squad that played at the recent World Cup remains. Siya Kolisi, the captain, is just 28, although the way he throws himself about, you must hope his body holds up.
Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi are whippersnappers compared to the likes of Ireland stalwart Rory Best, and locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager are, remarkably, just 28 and 26 respectively.
Trevor Nyakane has already hit 30, but prop forwards are typically the exception to the rugby rule. They might get slower, but they also get smarter. And stronger.
Scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies is the man for the future, no matter what Faf de Klerk’s legion of supporters believe, while Handre Pollard is 25 and only now demonstrating being fully formed as a flyhalf. By 2023, he should be what every great team requires: a commanding general at 10.
At the back, Willie le Roux might be the man in possession, but that hold is tenuous. He’s already hit 30, not quite in his dotage, but with a dangerous young lion like Willemse breathing down his neck, he might not be as untouchable as he once was.
As South Africa surveys the rugby landscape, two immutable mid-term goals stand out. In 2021, the British and Irish Lions tour South Africa. Two years later, the Boks will stage another assault on the World Cup.
Both challenges are massive and, thankfully, both can be met. Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has already established a solid legacy upon which to build, while SA Rugby’s pathways are looking encouraging. New talent is constantly identified, fast-tracked and absorbed.
Without even dropping to junior levels, there’s a frighteningly promising group of provincial players who will be banging the door down for Bok selection in the next 12-18 months.
Consider some of the names: Ox Nche, Joseph Dweba, Madosh Tambwe, Tyrone Green, Aphelele Fassi, Salmaan Moerat and Wandisile Simelane.
Throw that lot into the mix and see how the SA game catches flame.
Dweba is a potent example of what awaits. The former West Rand schoolboy has been in Bloemfontein for five years, having emerged from Craven Week (for the Lions) to arguably the Cheetahs’ most eye-catching player. He played for SA U20 and came into his own playing Currie Cup from 2016.
More latterly, his bullocking form in the Pro14 competition has catapulted him into the national conversation. If the 23-year-old hooker is not already in the Springbok discussion, it won’t be long before that changes.
One man closer than most to the action is Mzwakhe Nkosi, the SA Schools coach who makes it his business to know who’s who in the junior levels.
He, too, sees talent all around but cautions against it being frittered away. For an ideal template, he cites the example of New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett, who was a junior world championship winner first, given his breaks in Super Rugby and then played off the bench in his formative years with the All Blacks. Indeed, it took two years from his 2012 debut to being named in the run-on XV for the All Blacks for the first time. It was a plan executed with typical New Zealand excellence and forethought.
‘We’ve got to blood these youngsters in Super Rugby without throwing them to the wolves,’ said Nkosi. ‘You look at how Jake White’s 2007 champion team was built on the success of teams that had earlier won the U19 and U21 world championships. The correct pathways must be followed.’
He’s a fan of the alignment camps established by SA Rugby and sees a clear correlation between those and the intended spinoffs, pointing to the emergence of a precocious player like fullback Tyrone Green of the Lions as an example.
‘You’d be hard-pressed to find a 21-year-old as good as Green anywhere in the world.’
Nkosi should know. As a former coach at King Edward School in Johannesburg, it was his job to counter the lethal Jeppe Boys’ tyro who has become one of SA rugby’s most exciting breakout players.
Another such player is Moerat, ‘a probable future Springbok captain,’ says Nkosi of the impressive Western Province lock, who only 21 and with the world at his feet.
The coach rattles off many other names, among them Western Province tighthead prop Sazi Sandi, Sharks loose forward (and sometime hooker) Dylan Richardson and Gianni Lombard, the vibrant Lions utility back who grew up in Paarl.
If Erasmus made significant strides in pulling together a transformed Springbok squad, the upward trajectory of emerging black talent should make the job easier for his successor, whoever that might be.
But Nkosi warns against believing that corner has been turned, noting that ‘we’re still busy turning the corner’.
He makes the point – strongly, it must be added – that the deliberate effort at junior levels to transform isn’t always reflected at franchise level where caution and conservatism often hold sway.
For instance, he talks proudly of 15 of the 26-strong 2019 SA Schools squad comprising black players. What goes unsaid, however, is how many of these players might be lost to a system still trying to find answers to uniquely South African challenges. ‘If we get that right, it can only aid the Springboks,’ said Nkosi, indicating an obvious truth that hints at great possibilities.
Transformation is an important element in any planning for 2021 and 2023 both because it’s the right thing to do and it guarantees a deeper pool of talent, as we’ve seen with the recent emergence of outstanding black players. The Simelanes and Sandis of local rugby must be acknowledged.
With Erasmus having suggested he would step down after the World Cup, the new man in charge will have the opportunity to mould his own squad, notwithstanding the current crop being more than useful. The safe assumption is that the bulk of those who continue to play will remain in the Bok reckoning, although attrition will do its usual job and the coach must inject fresh energy.
The best way to do so is to draw younger players closer, to ensure that by the time the touring Lions arrive in 2021 the Bok newbies have double-figure caps and aren’t blinded by the harsh glare – and heat – of Test rugby.
History has taught us that these players shouldn’t be rushed in en masse, but rather introduced carefully and strategically, much as we’ve seen with Willemse, RG Snyman and Lukhanyo Am.
Super Rugby will be a helpful indicator of form ahead of the 2020 Rugby Championship and in-bound Tests against Fiji, Ireland and Wales should see some new players drawn closer.
Soon, the game will be in a state of flux thanks to the inevitable World Cup wash-out. The future will largely depend on those left standing, but all signs point to SA rugby being in a satisfying space for the challenge thrown down by both the British and Irish Lions and the next World Cup.
THE 2023 DREAM XV
This dream team isn’t going to win any trophies in 2020, but let it percolate and see what might happen in 2023. It’s packed with pace, precocity and power and confirms the efficiency of SA rugby’s busy conveyor belt.
15 Tyrone Green, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Damian Willemse, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Dan du Preez, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Salmaan Moerat, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Ox Nche.
*This article originally appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine, on sale now!