Rassie Erasmus has selected a Springbok squad that has the necessary experience and class to make a statement against Wales and England, writes JON CARDINELLI.
No shock omissions. That was my first thought when I cast my eye down the list of 43 names when the South African squad was confirmed on Saturday evening.
My second thought was the size of the squad. It prompts certain questions and a different sort of debate.
If the three-Test series against England was the sole focus, and if the Boks didn’t have to travel to Washington DC for a one-off against Wales in the coming week, we might be having a different conversation about who is and isn’t in a 30-man Bok squad.
As it is, with the announcement of a larger squad and with allowances being made for a demanding travel schedule, Erasmus has revealed who he is looking at for the Tests beyond the June fixtures and possibly even for the 2019 World Cup.
There’s been a lot of debate around the captaincy. With Warren Whiteley and Eben Etzebeth ruled out, Duane Vermeulen, Handré Pollard, and Siya Kolisi should be considered for the position this June.
It would surprise to see Erasmus backing one skipper, as he has already indicated that the team that starts in Washington will differ significantly, perhaps entirely, from the side that fronts England in Johannesburg on 9 June.
Perhaps Erasmus will back Pollard to lead the side against Wales in the season opener, and then hand the responsibility to Vermeulen for the duration of the three-Test series against England.
Either way, it appears as if Erasmus will mix and match to some degree. Pollard was the Boks’ first-choice flyhalf on the 2017 end-of-year tour, and has acquitted himself well in 2018 despite the Bulls’ Super Rugby struggles. His leadership would be an asset to a second-string Bok side in Washington, as would his relationship with Bulls scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl.
With Faf de Klerk expected to wear the No 9 shirt in the first game against England, we could well see the old Lions firm of De Klerk and Elton Jantjies reuniting at No 9 and 10. Even if it is just for the game at Ellis Park, those selections would make a lot of sense.
The decision to recall a handful of players based at overseas clubs is completely necessary. One could argue that Vermeulen (Toulon), Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn (both Montpellier), Willie le Roux (Wasps) and De Klerk (Sale) deserve to be selected based on their recent showings in the European club competitions. The first four names on that list, however, boast a great deal of experience, something that is in short supply when one considers the 43-man group as a whole.
South African rugby fans have short memories. We sometimes forget just how few times a player has been capped at international level. Many of us are always on the lookout for younger and more exciting players.
Erasmus has named 17 uncapped players in his squad of 43. That’s a notable percentage of inexperienced and untried players (40%), and we could see several of those making their Test debuts against Wales next Saturday, followed by several more against England a week later.
Apart from that group of 17 uncapped players, six in the group have five Test caps or fewer. Warrick Gelant and Wilco Louw may be household names, but they haven’t been on the Test scene for too long.
Six more players in the group have fewer than 20 Test caps. De Klerk earned all of his 11 caps in 2016, and was snubbed completely in 2017. Bongi Mbonambi and Jean-Luc du Preez have been on the Super Rugby scene for a while, but only made their Test debuts in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
The leadership group will have a crucial role to play in the coming weeks. Steyn and Le Roux are the only players in the back division who have played more than 30 Tests. The back-three is especially green, with not a single wing boasting a Test cap.
While Lukhanyo Am has been the form No 13 in South Africa for the past two years, he has made just one appearance for the Boks – from the bench. There’s a lot of work to do in that back division in terms of building up individuals and a settled combination, and I’m sure that Erasmus realises that better than anyone else.
Heyneke Meyer said in 2014 that Vermeulen was a Bok captain in waiting. Allister Coetzee suggested in 2016 that he would have given the responsibility to Vermeulen – instead of Adriaan Strauss – if the powerful No 8 was based in South Africa instead of in France.
Now that Vermeulen has come to the end of his Toulon contract, he may finally win the opportunity to lead his country. He deputised for Etzebeth at times when the Boks faced France and Italy on the 2017 tour to Europe.
There’s been a lot of talk about Kolisi leading the team this June, but one gets the feeling – from the player himself and after speaking to a few coaches in the South African system – that an opportunity to focus on his own game may benefit the player at this point of his career.
The Boks’ senior core will be strengthened when Etzebeth, Whiteley, Malcolm Marx and Lood de Jager return from their respective injuries later in the season. For now, they must work to establish a base from which to launch. Wins against Wales and England would signify progress in the context of the past two seasons.
Erasmus has shown a willingness to back youth as well as experience. One would hope that the next generation uses the opportunities afforded to them to stake a claim for a place in the Rugby Championship side and, eventually, the 2019 World Cup squad.
Gelant, Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi must be backed sooner rather than later. Am is another who would benefit from a regular starting berth. No 13 is a crucial position, and has been a problem position for the Boks since Jaque Fourie retired.
The real fun will start when Erasmus cuts his squad from 43 to 30 ahead of the England series. It’s in those three games that we will get a better idea of whom the Bok coach intends to invest for the next two years at least.
Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/Gallo Images