Only the All Blacks boast a squad more impressive in names and daunting in depth than the Springboks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
This is one hell of a time for Springbok rugby and the strength of the national squad is emphasised in who hasn’t been selected for the initial stages of the Rugby Championship.
Those Springboks unavailable through injury and overseas club commitments include Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, JP Pietersen, Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Flip van der Merwe. Those Springboks who will undergo fitness Tests prior to the Rugby Championship include Jean de Villiers, Eben Etzebeth, Tendai Mtawarira and Pat Lambie. And the Springbok who is in self-imposed international exile is Frans Steyn.
Then there’s Juan Smith and Heinrich Brüssow who haven’t made the initial Rugby Championship squad. And, of course, there is Siya Kolisi, Coenie Oosthuizen and Johan Goosen who have been dropped from the squad that played in June.
All three demoted men will play for the Springboks again because all three are too good not to be playing. Kolisi has struggled for form this season, much of it because of complications away from the field. Oosthuizen, I get the sense, is being given a good old father-to-son talking to with his omission and in the case of Goosen the view is he may just appreciate the Bok jersey a bit more now that it has been taken away from him.
There currently is some depth to South African rugby, which has been translated into a world ranking of No 2 and a 75% success rate since Heyneke Meyer took charge in 2012. But for two draws that percentage would be in the 80s, which is nearly 20% better than the historical 62% Springbok winning percentage.
What stands between the Springboks and a No 1 ranking and the Rugby Championship title is the All Blacks, who have held the No 1 position since 2009. The Kiwis have won every tournament, beaten every team home and away and have lost once and drawn once since the opening game of the 2011 World Cup.
The Boks, it has to be acknowledged, have placed second to a New Zealand team that statistically has had no comparison in the professional age or in the history of the game.
The South Africans are a strong unit, especially in the forwards and among the back three.
The vulnerability and question marks are at No 9. Du Preez is the best in the world, but when he doesn’t play the Boks lose more than an individual. They also tend to lose a way of playing, which promotes greater flat-lying attack and an outstanding line kicking game from the base of the scrum.
Ruan Pienaar will start in Du Preez’s enforced absence. Pienaar is no Du Preez and there should be no such expectation for him to be Du Preez.
Pienaar has strengths but they have always been suited to provincial and European club rugby. Pienaar, for Ulster, is as big as Du Preez is for the Springboks, but they are worlds apart in class as scrumhalves.
Pienaar is a world-class rugby player, who has played fullback, wing, flyhalf and scrumhalf for his country. Du Preez is a world-class scrumhalf, who has specialised in one position. The two represent two very different dynamics to any Springbok challenge and the Boks, without Du Preez, are weaker, which should not be interpreted as being weak.
Pienaar has to influence results in this season’s Rugby Championship. He has played 76 times for the Boks but I can’t think of too many times he has been the difference in winning and losing.
South Africa’s Castres-based scrumhalf Rory Kockott has not made the squad and will in all probability play for France when he becomes eligible in November. Meyer doesn’t rate Kockott in his top five, but Kockott, because of his line and goal-kicking game, has the ability to do more damage at Test level than Pienaar has ever done or that I can envisage new cap Cobus Reinach ever doing.
Reinach is a handful on attack, brilliant from broken play, an opportunist and a fantastic athlete, but he is not a fantastic scrumhalf. He struggles with what coaches call the ‘exit zone’, especially when his forwards are back-pedaling or at best moving more lateral than forward.
I am not convinced about his inclusion but I am convinced it was an oversight to omit Stormers and Western Province loose forward Nizaam Carr.
The Boks, imposing and physical in confrontations, enjoy contact but they also play too much to a face and not enough to space. Carr physically is capable but his natural instinct to find space on attack gives him an edge over others – and it’s a skill that could only add to the potency of the Bok challenge.
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