Springboks bolster depth to set platform for 2023 World Cup assault
The Boks have won crucial matches this year and built depth with an eye to Rugby World Cup 2023.
The Springboks have achieved several important goals over the course of a challenging 2021 season. While results are the primary measurement of success in top-flight rugby, coach Jacques Nienaber deserves credit for winning big Tests while blooding new players and combinations.
Covid-19 restrictions forced Nienaber to select uncommonly large squads over the course of the season. Coaches and players were pushed to the physical and mental brink during a three-month period in a bio-secure bubble.
The silver lining was that Nienaber and his coaching staff had the chance to work with many players and bolster the team’s depth with a view to 2022, and ultimately the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The Boks’ clash against England at Twickenham on 20 November marks the 13th Test of the season – and the team’s 15th game overall when one accounts for the two South African A fixtures staged before the Test series against the British & Irish Lions in July. A total of 52 players were involved with the team between June and late November, and 48 received game time in some capacity.
Making a plan
The pandemic cast the Boks into the international wilderness in 2020 and compromised their plans to build on the 2019 World Cup victory. As a result, the Boks went into the Lions series short on game time and synergy. Nienaber, however, refused to accept that the situation would determine the result.
“’n Boer maak ’n plan [a farmer makes a plan],” he told DM168 in an interview, which suggested that the team could – despite many predictions to the contrary – hit this curve ball out of the park.
The curve balls kept on coming during the 2021 season. Injuries forced Nienaber to change his selection plans and adjust his tactical strategies.
Lock RG Snyman was ruled out for the entire season after sustaining burns in a fire-pit incident in Ireland. Veteran No 8 Duane Vermeulen missed the entire series against the Lions, while 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit broke down in the second Test, and didn’t feature again in 2021.
More and more World Cup winners joined the injury list. Star winger Cheslin Kolbe missed the Tests against the Wallabies and All Blacks, as well as the tour to the northern hemisphere. Tactical kingpin Faf de Klerk and frontline tighthead Frans Malherbe were ruled out of the sojourn to Wales, Scotland and England.
Rookies shine without veterans
The absence of these stalwarts, however, provided less experienced players, as well as those who had received limited opportunities under Rassie Erasmus and Nienaber in 2018 and 2019, with the opportunity to stake a claim.
Jasper Wiese made his debut in the absence of Vermeulen and played an influential role in the Lions series victory. Prop Ox Nché – who went into the 2021 season with a solitary cap to his name – emerged as one of the Boks’ players of the season.
Wiese and Nché were among Nienaber’s most trusted players, featuring in 11 and eight Tests respectively over the course of the year. It’s worth remembering these numbers whenever some critics insist that the Bok coach is obsessed with veterans or that he is reluctant to back younger and less experienced players. The stats show that Nienaber has been anything but conservative.
Outside backs Aphelele Fassi and Rosko Specman, hooker Joseph Dweba and scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse also received their first Test caps. Some have questioned why these individuals received so few opportunities during the season. The fact is that these players are third- or fourth-choice in their respective positions at this stage of the cycle. They should receive more chances to shine in 2022 as Nienaber fine-tunes the squad with a view to 2023.
Fringe players challenge status quo
Another point that is seldom made by critics is that South Africa already boasts a large contingent of fringe players, who have been developed and groomed by Erasmus and Nienaber over four years.
Nienaber has often spoken about striking a balance between rewarding new talent and managing the game time of others who have experience of the Bok structures and systems. Before 2021, there were several players in the group who had been waiting three or four years for an extended run in the starting XV (preferred starting line-up).
Kwagga Smith did enough to earn selection for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, but did not play in the big pool games and was considered surplus to requirements in the playoffs.
An injury to Vermeulen ahead of the 2021 Lions series provided Smith with an opportunity to feature regularly in the match 23. When Du Toit broke down in the second Test, Franco Mostert slotted in at blindside flank for the remainder of the series.
Over the course of the Rugby Championship, however, the coaches revised their back-row strategy and decided to deploy Smith at No 7 for the two matches against New Zealand – the latter culminating in a famous win for the Boks.
Such was Smith’s impact, and such was the success of the new loose-trio combination, that he was backed to start in the last five Tests of the season.
The selection of Smith may have been forced due to Du Toit’s season-ending injury, but it has provided the Boks with an opportunity to explore a less traditional blindside option and ultimately a different back-row strategy.
Reinach’s stock soars
Cobus Reinach also spent the better part of the World Cup watching the big games from the stands. In 2021, however, he received more opportunities – six starts in seven Tests – when De Klerk was unavailable due to injuries.
The scrumhalf contingent has certainly grown, with Hendrikse impressing on debut before breaking his leg against Argentina. Reinach appears to have leap-frogged Herschel Jantjies as the official understudy to De Klerk.
Jesse Kriel has also made the most of an unlikely opportunity. The midfield combination of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am started in 11 out of 13 Tests, with Kriel starting only two at outside centre. Given Nienaber’s preference for a utility back in the No 23 jersey – Damian Willemse or Frans Steyn – Kriel was routinely left out of the match 23.
The situation changed for the tour to the UK. While S’bu Nkosi deputised superbly for Kolbe in the Rugby Championship, a passport issue cost him the chance to face Wales in the tour-opener.
Nienaber moved Kriel – a strong defender and high-ball exponent – to No 14, with impressive results.
The upshot is that Kriel may well be viewed by the coaches as a utility player in future, and this could increase his chances of making the 2023 World Cup squad.
Questions that need answering
The decision to back 37-year-old Morné Steyn in the short-term certainly paid off. Steyn booted the Boks to a narrow win in the third Test against the Lions, and ultimately a series victory.
That selection hasn’t addressed the team’s lack of depth at No 10, though. Steyn retired from Test rugby after the Rugby Championship. While Willemse and Frans Steyn have been listed as the official alternatives to Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies, it would come as a surprise to see these players starting at No 10 in future.
Pollard has started in 11 out of 13 Tests this season. He remains the Boks’ go-to man, but the coaches would do well to plan for the worst-case scenario and develop at least two realistic starting alternatives before the World Cup.
Jantjies’ lack of game time has been a talking point for the past four seasons. He did not feature in the 2019 World Cup playoffs, and started in two of his five Tests in 2021. The Boks have to give Jantjies more game time in 2022, and yet they have to settle on the third flyhalf berth before 2023.
Similar questions remain at inside centre and fullback. De Allende enjoyed a fantastic season, but what are the Boks going to do when he breaks down?
Frans Steyn has proved himself a world-class option at 12 and 15 this season, but by the 34-year-old’s own admission, he won’t be around forever.
Willemse received a limited opportunity at inside centre during the Lions tour. Plans to develop the 23-year-old as a potential successor to fullback Willie le Roux were scuppered when he sustained a concussion against Wales in Cardiff. One would hope that he receives more than two starts in 11 matches next season.
Nienaber has name-checked Fassi as another potential successor to Le Roux at 15. Fassi started at fullback for the South African A side against the Bulls in July, but made both of his Test appearances on the wing. Plans for his development should be accelerated when the group participates in three Tests against Wales, as well as two South African A fixtures, next July.
One would expect a degree of experimentation across those matches. The subsequent Tests in the Rugby Championship, and against Ireland, France, Italy and Wales in the northern hemisphere, will demand a change of gear.
South Africa’s opponents in a two-game Test series scheduled for June 2023 are yet to be confirmed. After competing in a truncated Rugby Championship, the Boks will depart for France.
While there is still room for improvement over the next 15 games, it’s fair to say that Nienaber has laid a strong platform in what is effectively his first year at the helm. A large number of individuals have received opportunities and several combinations have been explored in each department. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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