In the fourth instalment of a six-part series, JON CARDINELLI highlights the Springboks’ quality in depth and where the world champions can improve in the next four-year cycle.
There’s bound to be a lot of debate about the individual back-row selections and indeed the make-up of the first-choice combination. To put things into perspective regarding South Africa’s depth – one could select three different loose trios (based on the most experienced players used in Rassie Erasmus’ two year-tenure) and still have Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Dan du Preez and Ryhnardt Elstadt left over.
And that’s before you start looking at others on the fringe like Jaco Kriel, or the clutch of young loosies who have excelled for their respective franchises in 2020. That’s before you start exploring the option of starting certain individuals out of position – this is never ideal, but utility players are needed in a wider squad where numbers are limited.
Let’s begin with the established back row of Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen.
The inspirational South African captain and the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year will be central to the Boks’ cause over the next four years – although it remains to be seen when Du Toit will be back after sustaining a freak injury while on duty for the Stormers. Vermeulen (33) will be available for the series against the British & Irish Lions. Beyond 2021, however, it remains to be seen how the veteran will be utilised.
Will Warren Whiteley make a return to Test rugby? At this stage, it seems unlikely. The No 8 – who led the Boks briefly in 2017 – has battled with injuries over the past three years and is currently serving on the Lions coaching staff. Oupa Mohoje, the Cheetahs stalwart, is another who hasn’t featured for the Boks in almost two years.
Kwagga Smith started against the All Blacks in Wellington last year, but featured in just two pool games at the 2019 World Cup. It remains to be seen whether he will feature prominently in the next World Cup cycle, or whether he will focus on helping the Blitzboks win gold at the Olympic Games, which has been postponed to 2022 due the Covid-19 crisis.
Marcell Coetzee received a recall in 2019 on the back of a strong season for Irish club Ulster. Sadly, he sustained an injury in the Boks’ last match before the World Cup squad was announced and missed out on the global tournament. One would hope that he receives another chance, as he boasts a wealth of experience and can play all back-row positions.
|NO 6||NO 7||NO 8|
|2019 WORLD CUP SQUAD MEMBERS||SIYA KOLISI (50), KWAGGA SMITH (6)||PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT (55)||DUANE VERMEULEN (54)|
|OTHER SQUAD MEMBERS 2018-2019||MARCO VAN STADEN (3), RYNHARDT ELSTADT (2)||JEAN-LUC DU PREEZ (13), OUPA MOHOJE (19)||SIKHUMBUZO NOTSHE (6), MARCELL COETZEE (30), WARREN WHITELEY (23), DAN DU PREEZ (4)|
|POSSIBLE BOLTERS||JAMES VENTER, JACO COETZEE||VINCENT TSHITSUKA|
*Test caps in brackets
Others in the ‘third-choice’ back row include Jean-Luc du Preez and Marco van Staden. Du Preez’s power and ability to offload in contact will add value to any gameplan, while Van Staden has been one of the premier fetchers in South African rugby for the past three seasons.
I’m not sure if the players mentioned above are next in line. It would be hard for Erasmus to ignore the form of Notshe, who has taken his game to a new level since joining the Sharks. Notshe enjoyed a brief stint with the Boks in 2018. He appears a more complete player in 2020, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him featuring regularly in the national squad.
The list of loose forwards excelling at home and abroad – and ultimately pushing for higher honours – continues. Kriel is back in South Africa and could be reintroduced to the Bok set-up at some stage. Dan du Preez has been in outstanding form for the Sale Sharks, while Toulouse-based Elstadt showed what he can offer when he played for the Boks in the 2019 Rugby Championship.
Stormers flank Jaco Coetzee’s ability to play to the ball has not gone unnoticed. James Venter’s hard work at the breakdown has made all the difference for the Sharks. Vincent Tshitshuka of the Lions is a rough diamond that may well shine for the Boks in the coming years.
Do the selectors really need to shift players around the back row when there’s such an abundance of specialists?
While I’ve mentioned some of the players in a first-, second- and third-choice context above, the reality is that they’re unlikely to play together in those specific trios. Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have highlighted the importance of playing a younger or less-experienced player alongside two veterans – whether it’s in the forwards or in the backline.
For example, there may be cause for Vermeulen to start at No 7 while another player is given a chance at No 8 at some point over the next two years. If the rumours are to be believed, Kolisi himself may get a chance at No 8. That will provide the Boks with a different back-row dynamic, and create an opportunity for someone other than the captain to start at No 6.
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