In the first article of a three-part series, CRAIG LEWIS looks back at the Springboks’ match-day squad from the World Cup final to chart their journeys over the past 15 months.
During a recent virtual media briefing, Rassie Erasmus rattled off a players list that highlighted how a host of World Cup-winning Springboks had played little to no rugby since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019.
The likes of Handre Pollard, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Makazole Mapimpi, Malcolm Marx, RG Snyman and Lood de Jager have barely played, and the list goes on and on. It’s the reason the Springboks ultimately opted out of the 2020 Rugby Championship due to player-welfare concerns.
Even those who have been able to get some rugby under the belt have endured regular disruptions due to injuries, competition changes or Covid-19-related setbacks.
Although South Africa’s famous World Cup triumph may still feel fresh in the memory, it’s crazy to think that more 15 months have passed since that day in Yokohama, while the world, and the global game of rugby, have changed forever in that time.
With all this in mind, and with the Springboks continuing to push ahead with their preparation for the British & Irish Lions series, it’s interesting to unpack how the World Cup-winning players have negotiated an unprecedented period since leaving Japan.
15 Willie le Roux
The veteran fullback was one of the players who Erasmus pinpointed when highlighting how several individuals were nowhere near the 400-minute threshold for game time, which led to the Boks’ withdrawal from the 2020 Rugby Championship.
Japan’s Top League season has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Just recently, Le Roux was expected to turn out for Toyota Verblitz in the opening round of their new campaign, but the match against Suntory Sungoliath had to be called off due to an outbreak.
Le Roux is one of the players who remains desperately in need of some game time, particularly when considering that the backup fullback from the World Cup, Warrick Gelant, is still recovering from a serious injury.
14 Cheslin Kolbe
The World Cup star was one of the few players who continued to make headlines when he was able to return to action for Toulouse last year, with the fleet-footed wing scoring a series of sensational tries that reminded the rugby public about his enduring class.
An untimely injury unfortunately disrupted his progress, but Kolbe was able to return to action recently, and he is at least one of the players who doesn’t seem to have slowed down much since the World Cup.
13 Lukhanyo Am
The Sharks skipper is one of the World Cup players who has been able to bank a meaningful amount of match play despite a hand injury keeping him on the sidelines for several weeks towards the end of last year.
The 27-year-old has been a steady and reliable performer for the Currie Cup runners-up, but it hasn’t been an easy path to reach the soaring heights we saw at the World Cup, when his form was otherworldly.
12 Damian de Allende
The burly centre is one of many overseas-based players who endured first-hand experience of coronavirus disruptions. After heading to Japan after the World Cup, he was one of the Springboks who struggled to find a flight home after the Top League was cancelled.
He eventually made it to his new club Munster last May, and then went through an isolation period before finally settling in to start contributing on-field.
De Allende has admitted his move to the Irish club and northern-hemisphere rugby has required an adjustment, but he has produced some bright moments, and is at least starting to bulk up his game time.
11 Makazole Mapimpi
There were plenty of positives when the Sharks soared to the top of the Super Rugby standings at the start of the 2020 season, with Mapimpi riding the wave of World Cup stardom.
Yet, as competition was halted and SA rugby opened up a window period for players to consider overseas contracts, Mapimpi became a seriously sought-after recruit.
Eventually a compromise was reached to allow him to head to Japan for a sabbatical, but there has been very limited opportunity for game time.
The wing’s presence was missed during the past domestic season, but he will hopefully get the ball rolling with the Red Hurricanes before returning to the Sharks later this year.
10 Handre Pollard
The World Cup points machine remains in the middle of his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury suffered soon after heading into action with French club Montpellier last September.
His recovery and return to play before the Lions series remains of utmost importance.
9 Faf de Klerk
The England-based halfback is one of the few players who has spoken publicly about contracting Covid-19, with Sale Sharks one of the clubs to have been particularly badly affected last year.
The good news is that he has been able to start getting some more game time under the belt as a new season of competition continues up north. But, like many, the focus is now on rediscovering top form.
*Parts two and three of this article series will be published on Thursday and Friday, respectively