The fact that Rassie Erasmus is spoiled for choice on the eve of the World Cup goes to show how far this Springbok side has come, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks have come a long way. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that less than two years have passed since they suffered a 57-0 hammering at the hands of the All Blacks in Albany.
The 2017 season also witnessed a record defeat by Ireland in Dublin, a loss that led many to mourn the end of South Africa’s physical aura. Player morale was rock bottom on that four-match tour to Europe.
A couple of days after the 38-3 loss in Dublin, I went to watch the Boks train at a ground on the outskirts of Paris. A senior member of the management team made his way over to the sideline to take me up on something I had written about the selections.
‘Who else is there,’ he stated more than asked me as we discussed problem positions like fullback, inside centre and scrumhalf. When I mentioned a few alternatives, he shook his head and then proceeded to detail why my demands weren’t realistic.
That tour ended with another disappointing defeat by Wales. After the post-match media conference at the Millennium Stadium, I caught up with Allister Coetzee in the corridor and asked him about where this team was headed. That conversation left me more worried than angry, as Coetzee suggested that the players involved were the best and that the team could not get any stronger.
Fast forward to the present. We’ve learned that the first-choice players who were backed in the Coetzee era – such as Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Willie le Roux, Malcolm Marx and many others – actually have another gear or two.
Over a period of 18 months, we’ve seen the new coach bringing Duane Vermeulen, Faf de Klerk and other key players back from overseas. We’ve witnessed 23 players making their Test debuts over a period of 18 Tests.
In short, we’ve learned that there are many alternatives and that the situation is not as dire as first thought.
BEST BOK SIDE THAT WON’T GO TO JAPAN*
15 Curwin Bosch
14 Dillyn Leyds
13 Lionel Mapoe
12 Andre Esterhuizen
11 Aphiwe Dyantyi
10 Damian Willemse
9 Embrose Papier
8 Warren Whiteley
7 Jean-Luc du Preez
6 Marcell Coetzee
5 Marvin Orie
4 Jason Jenkins
3 Wilco Louw
2 Chiliboy Ralepelle
1 Ox Nche
16 Scarra Ntubeni
17 Lizo Gqoboka
18 Thomas du Toit
19 Marco van Staden
20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe
21 Ivan van Zyl
22 Robert du Preez
23 Travis Ismaiel
*Based on most starts/caps in Erasmus era (2018-19)
In 2017, there didn’t appear to be enough talent to fill a team of 15. On the eve of the World Cup squad announcement, however, it feels like more than 31 deserve to travel to Japan.
I’ve enjoyed the debates that have unfolded across the pages of traditional and social media over the past week or so. There was an outcry when Erasmus reduced his squad to 36, and another when the group was cut to 32.
Clearly the feeling among South African fans and commentators is that the Boks have more than 40 players who are capable of representing the nation at a World Cup.
In the past, there wasn’t one clear-cut option at No 9 and 12. Nowadays, we’re debating which option among two or three should be backed to start the big World Cup games.
Erasmus has succeeded in his quest to obtain several important results and to develop a team that can do the nation proud at the 2019 World Cup. The headache he faces ahead of the squad announcement on Monday is a pleasant one, and a sign that the team and SA Rugby in general is moving in the right direction.
Consider the quality of the players who are set to miss out on World Cup selection. Rynhardt Elstadt, Warrick Gelant and Kwagga Smith are all with the current squad of 32. One of the three may not travel to Japan.
Erasmus has already confirmed that Damian Willemse’s lack of game time since returning from injury will count against him. Aphiwe Dyantyi is yet to make his comeback, while Marcell Coetzee and Warren Whiteley are on the long-term injury list.
What about the other players who Erasmus has used since the start of 2018?
Curwin Bosch, Travis Ismaiel, Dillyn Leyds, Andre Esterhuizen, Lionel Mapoe, Robert du Preez, Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier, Oupa Mohoje, Dan du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Marco van Staden, Jason Jenkins, Marvin Orie, Ox Nche, Thomas du Toit, Lizo Gqoboka, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Akker van der Merwe may all be surplus to the 31-man requirement.
Cyle Brink was set to make his debut in the 2018 Rugby Championship before he suffered a serious leg injury. Ross Cronje sat on the bench in that tournament, while JD Schickerling, Ruhan Nel and Sergeal Petersen toured Europe with the Boks in November.
Erasmus has also expressed an interest in overseas veterans such as Jan Serfontein and Bismarck du Plessis. That the Boks can afford to head into a World Cup without these players is a statement in itself.
A few players will be disappointed when the squad is announced on Monday. A few fans will lament a decision to omit their favourites from the final group.
Few if any will argue, however, that the development of several options in just about every position is something to celebrate in the context of what South African rugby has been through over the past four years.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images