SA Rugby needs to do everything in its power to ensure that these Springboks – including those based abroad – play together as much as possible in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Ellis Park is South African rugby’s theatre of dreams. One dream was realised in 1995 when the Boks beat the All Blacks in the World Cup final. Another came to fruition this past Saturday when a black African led the Boks in a Test match for the first time.
The clash that followed was dramatic, even by Ellis Park standards. An inexperienced Bok side without a single established combination rallied from 24-3 down to win 42-39.
The expressions worn by the players for much of the 80 minutes was revealing. There was no sign of panic when they trailed by 21 points after 18 minutes.
Afterwards, coach Rassie Erasmus said that he was proud of the character shown by his charges in that contest. While the defence and aspects of the attack require immediate attention, Erasmus appears confident that his team is heading in the right direction in terms of the culture and playing mindset.
It was a thrilling performance in isolation. What’s more, the result sees the Boks taking a 1-0 lead in the series against England. South Africa could clinch the rubber in Bloemfontein next Saturday.
And yet, as Erasmus has stated on more than one occasion, the Boks need to be looking to the future instead of obsessing over the present. The team took a step forward on Saturday, but there is still a long journey ahead.
Most would have been encouraged by what they saw at Ellis Park. Siya Kolisi vindicated his selection as Bok skipper. Erasmus’ bold move to back rookies like S’bu Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi, RG Snyman and even Lukhanyo Am in his first start paid off handsomely.
What we know is that the Boks have the players to be a force on the Test stage, but what we haven’t seen in recent times is a consistent team performance.
The key over the next 13 months or so is to build and develop that squad to the point where it is firing as a unit. Those combinations need to be backed and tested before the 2019 World Cup.
Duane Vermeulen, Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux were outstanding at Ellis Park. Erasmus may feel more positive about his decision to pick these players even though they are based in Europe.
One would hope that these players feature across most of the Tests played before the World Cup. It may not be that simple, though.
Vermeulen’s availability for the Rugby Championship will only be confirmed at the end of June. It’s crazy to think that Vermeulen may not have the chance to grow alongside Kolisi and the other leaders in the side, and in that new-look back row.
I’ve heard that Le Roux won’t be available for the Tests against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. The fullback dazzled as an individual and in partnership with Dyantyi and Nkosi at Ellis Park. One would have liked to have seen this combination being tested and refined in the more challenging Rugby Championship, though.
The Boks have already suffered two significant setbacks with Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn ruled out of the Tests against England. It’s my understanding that SA Rugby and Montpellier could not reach an agreement regarding the release of these players.
It’s sad to think that this may hurt Du Plessis and Steyn’s chances of representing the Boks again. The issue is not limited to the 2007 World Cup-winning duo, though. Jan Serfontein, then the first-choice No 12, missed the European tour last November due to club commitments.
Regulation 9 effectively states that players must be released to their countries during the official World Rugby windows. It’s not always that clear-cut, though, with European and Japanese teams putting pressure on the players to choose club over country.
As we’ve seen in the past, players based abroad are rarely available for entire tournaments or tours and often return to their clubs before the Test window closes. SA Rugby must fight hard in the coming months to ensure that the favoured overseas-based players play as many Tests as possible before the next global tournament.
Every player will be available for the 2019 World Cup. It’s the one time in the four-year cycle where the focus is on one tournament. It’s the one time when we get to see the best players competing against one another, and when club commitments aren’t an issue.
That said, what happens between now and then could be more important as far as building a potential world champion team is concerned.
The Boks made a bright start at Ellis Park, showing guts as well as intent to overcome a decent England team. It would be a shame to see this Bok side losing momentum in the next few months due to the unavailability of key players based abroad.