How Deep Is The Talent Pool?

The 2018 Rugby Championships is done and dusted. Rassie Erasmus’s first seven months in charge of the Springboks produced so much more than many had expected. Starting from a below-zero base, he hauled the Springboks up out of the depths to which they plummeted in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. He shook them up, stirred their collective pride, and engendered a new ethos of team and country that went missing during the woeful Coetzee years.

Erasmus’s results out on the playing field have been acceptable to one and all. Save for four games, that experimental and wholly unnecessary outing against Wales in the USA, the third and dead rubber Test against England, a poor game in Australia, and a somewhat bumbling second Test against Argentina, every other game has shown a Springbok outfit that appears to have turned the corner and is back on the rise again.

Of course, there are those that demand instant success and expect something akin to a miracle every time the Springboks take to the field.

They are those who celebrate victory with a jeering triumphalism, a jingoist flag waving schoolyard bully style that borders on the obscene, yet they are the very same people who I term the Doom & Gloom squad, those who threaten to abandon the Springboks and rugby itself for ever and ever after a loss.

Even those very same Doom & Gloomers are less sanguine about Springbok rugby than they were just a scant 8 months ago. Perhaps even they are starting to understand that it takes time and patience to build a world beating team? Perhaps they will afford Rassie Erasmus that opportunity?

As Nick Mallett said after last weekend’s loss to the All Blacks: “I think the supporters understand that South Africa are on the up and up. We have had quite a few years of disillusionment. Heyneke Meyer only managed to win one against the All Blacks and Allister Coetzee zero. We took a couple of 50-pointers, which demoralises the support, so we have a bit of trepidation before we say the Boks can win. After these two showings, scoring 36 points away and 30 points at home, we are definitely back.”

He went on to say: “A word on some of the youngsters. We didn’t know who [Aphiwe] Dyantyi was last year. He has been absolutely sensational, scoring six or seven tries, putting his body on the line and is so competitive. We have [Lukhanyo] Am who has come through and played a brilliant game in Wellington, and Damian Willemse. If you saw the step Willemse had and the offload to [Franco] Mostert, there was another [potential] try.”

There will always be those that maintain that Rassie Erasmus hasn’t got everything right in his selections. They all have their personal favourites, some of whom have been left out of the Springbok squad by Erasmus, but each and every one must acknowledge that his choices have been focussed on building a team, and units within a team, and that has allowed him to be creative in his choices.

His selection process has had a very positive effect across the broad spectrum of players who aspire to the Springbok jersey. He has recreated the desire, the pride, and the esprit de corps that is essential in building a national team, and in doing so he has created some serious competition in the majority of positions within the team.

Healthy competition builds strength and depth as South Africa goes about developing their national squad.

The Depth:

Let’s examine each position in the team, with a look at the depth of resources available to Rassie Erasmus.

We shall begin with the Back Three:

When Rassie Erasmus took over the coaching reins of the Springbok team, the back three was a particular weakness in the squad. During the Allister Coetzee era, if two years can be called an era, this unit became South Africa’s Achilles Heel, with opposing teams focussed on playing the ball into the wider channels and testing the wings under high balls and chip kicks. All those selected to play out wide floundered under the pressure brought to bear by everyone and anyone. Even weaker teams knew that they could gain advantage by playing onto the Springbok wings.

The whole circus culminated in a horrendous display against Ireland in the first game of the 2017 end-of-year tour programme.

Fullback:

Erasmus’s first decision was to secure the services of Willie le Roux, who had left the country to go and play for Wasps after he had been unceremoniously dumped from the Springbok squad by Allister Coetzee. Coetzee somehow blamed le Roux for the inadequacies of the rest of his backline choices and their inability to run supporting lines and play off the spaces created by le Roux.

It was an inspired choice, as Le Roux instantly brought both stability to the fullback position, while adding some serious striking power and superior ball distribution to the Back Three unit.

Le Roux also served as a mentor and manager for the rookies who were chosen to play out on the wings for the Springboks. He went so far as to tell them that they should not be too concerned about getting to the ball, it was his job to get the ball to them!

Of course, Willie le Roux will not be available for all Test matches. He is contracted to Wasps and the English Premiership clubs do not release foreign players to their national teams outside of the World Rugby International Windows. The Springboks need options at the back, and this might be something of a minor problem in the immediate future.

There is plenty of quality available, but a serious lack of experience and maturity amongst the possible replacements for Le Roux. The first choices are probably: Damian Willemse, Warrick Gelant, and Curwin Bosch. However there are a couple of other names that could be considered. SP Marais has spent most of his career in the 15 jersey although Western Province have used him on the wing in 2018, he has been in very good form in the last months. Cheslin Kolbe has also played most of his senior rugby in the fullback jersey, while Dillyn Leyds is a willing, if limited, contender.

If Erasmus wants to ensure an experienced head in the 15 jersey, Frans Steyn may also come into contention.

Right wing
The right wing position has been a difficult one for Erasmus to fill with a regular choice. Injuries robbed him of the services of Sbu Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi, and Travis Ismail. Jesse Kriel was given a run out wide, but he was clearly out of position, so Cheslin Kolbe was called up as something of a surprise choice, and he grabbed his chance with both hands. He has to be considered as the incumbent, although he will be under serious pressure from both Nkosi and Mapimpi. Ruan Combrinck’s name should also be remembered, especially as he can also provide cover at fullback.
Left wing
There might be plenty of options in the left wing slot, but all of them will have to contend with the incumbent, Aphiwe Dyantyi, if they want to take his place in the team. He was one of the finds of the year and has shown an ability and willingness to learn with each outing. Back-ups would be Lwazi Mvovu, Courtnall Skosan, SP Marais, and, perhaps, Dillyn Leyds. The latter two s utility players rather than as specialist wings.

Midfield:

Under Allister Coetzee the midfield was something of a revolving door of players moving in and out of the team, and switching positions more frequently than the weather changes on the West Coast. He was happy to use specialist 13s at 12, flyhalves as centres, and combinations that simply did not gel. He did not give any pairing a real opportunity to gel.

Rassie Erasmus has been far more focussed in his choices, using specialists in their chosen positions, 12s as 12, and outside centres as outside centres. Whilst the midfield is not yet a fully settled pairing, there are indications of Rassie’s thinking in both positions.

Outside Centre

At outside centre he has gone with Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel as his first choices, with Lionel Mapoe as the fall-back option. The recent introduction of the exciting Ruhan Nel to the Springbok training squad adds yet another attacking dimension to this spot. There are also one or two youngsters who could force their way into contention, with Dan du Plessis being touted as a possible Springbok. Of course, the old warhorse Frans Steyn cannot be left out of the thinking.

Inside Centre

The inside centre berth is less contested. Damian de Allende has shown himself to be the form centre in this position, and is backed up by the solid but unspectacular Andre Esterhuizen. Jan Serfontein’s name must be added to the list, although his loyalty to the team might be questionable. Of course, there is always Frans Steyn.

As combinations go, the pairing of De Allende and Kriel showed much promise when first selected by Heyneke Meyer, but were promptly dumped when the World Cup loomed. In the last weeks this pairing has again started to show promise as a combination that works well together.

Nines and tens:

Many people like to refer to the spine of a rugby team, they talk about the hooker, the No8, the scrumhalf, the flyhalf, and the fullback as the “spine” of any team. I might add that the spine, that 2-8-9-10-15 lineup, cannot function without some truly sturdy sinews to hold it all together, especially in the jerseys numbered 1 and 3. In the old days they used to say “choose your tighthead, and then fill in the rest of the spaces….

However you might consider selecting a team, and whichever positions you consider absolutely critical in building a team, I would offer that the single most important position is that of the scrumhalf. No matter how good your “spine” at 2, or 8, or 10 and 15, if the scrumhalf is weak, the team will likely fail.

Scrumhalf

A modern scrumhalf is the critical game manager in a team. He is not just the link between the forwards and the backs. He is not just the distributor of the ball from the base of the scrum, ruck, maul or lineout. He is the pivotal player that determines the direction of play and the focus point of the attack. He determines who will receive the ball he is about to distribute. He is also the trigger of every defensive set-up.

In essence, rugby is played “off the 9” – be it the archaic pop-pass to pod after pod of forwards, or the pass back to the three quarters, or the box kick, the chip and grubber from the base, the blindside break, the link back to supporting loosies. Whether it is an inside or close game or a wide outside game, the game of rugby revolves around the enterprise and decision-making of the scrumhalf.

This has been an area of the game where South Africa really struggled after the retirement of Fourie du Preez.

As du Preez’s days as the first choice 9 were winding down, the national game became totally focussed on playing crash-ball rugby, with pods of forwards lining up close to the breakdown, ready to receive a pop-pass from the scrumhalf and then grind the ball up-field a meter or two, before going to ground for endless repetitions of the same tactic. When the ball was, perhaps, passed to the back division, it was simply for the inside centre to do exactly the same as the pods pf forwards, crashing back into the melee of forwards, going to ground, and setting up yet another pop-and-grind session.

Scrumhalves were not required to “read” the game. They did not need to move the ball swiftly away from the contact point, and did not have to look out for opportunity. Time after time, game after game, this generation of scrumhalves would arrive at the base of the ruck, make sure the ball was secured, and then look around to see whether the desired forward recipient had set himself for the next carry. If a suitable pod was not available, the fall-back option was the box kick. We saw this style of play from the likes of Francois Hougaard, Ruan Pienaar, Cobus Reinach and others.

All this has changed with the return of Faf de Klerk to the Springbok set-up. Back in 2016 Allister Coetzee elevated him into the Springbok starting XV and many thought that we would see a more exciting style of rugby at last, despite some questions about his maturity and often “hot-headed” approach to the game. Unfortunately Coetzee soon abandoned the idea of playing a faster more enterprising game of rugby and De Klerk fell from favour. At the same time his Lions’ coach, Johan Ackermann, chose to play a steadier low-risk journeyman type scrumhalf, Ross Cronje, ahead of De Klerk as he preferred the attacking decisions to be made at the flyhalf. De Klerk found himself unwanted and quickly accepted an offer to go and play his rugby for Sale in England.

His time at Sale has seen his game blossom as the Premiership club allowed him to control the game in his own way, and gave him free rein to run as much as he liked. His game matured, as did his management skills.

Rassie Erasmus is an astute judge of talent and he saw something very special in De Klerk and very quickly recalled him to the Springbok squad. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

The problem position had a solution, albeit just the one solution at the moment!

It is the back-up troops that are something of a problem. Erasmus has identified his preference for quick, enterprising scrumhalves, and there is undoubtedly some real talent in South Africa. The problem is that the real talent is also very very raw. They are youngsters with almost no experience at all and still have a long way to go before they can be considered salted, experienced game managers.

So, at scrumhalf, South Africa has a gem, Faf de Klerk, as their first choice. After him there are a bunch of youngsters: Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl have already earned Springbok caps, while the two Province youngsters, Herschel Jantjies and Paul de Wet are developing into good players. Ross Cronje cannot be discounted as a fall-back option for his steadiness and accurate service, although he is injured at the moment. Cameron Wright on the Sharks is another with potential. If all else fails, Rassie might still call on Cobus Reinach.

Flyhalf

The flyhalf position is perhaps better served with depth.

Handré Pollard has certainly established himself as the first choice flyhalf for the Springboks. After two good Tests against England, he had a shaky start to the Rugby Championships as his goal-kicking stuttered, but he then cured the yips, regained his confidence, and started to play to his considerable potential. The injuries of the past two years have been beaten and he is growing in stature with each outing.

Behind Pollard, the Springboks have continued to favour Elton Jantjies as the reserve 10, while nurturing and building Damian Willemse as the crown prince. Robert du Preez must surely remain in the thinking, together with the likes of Curwin Bosch and Jean-Luc du Preez.

The Loose Trio:

No.8

As the Springboks prepare for the end-of-the-year tour to Europe, the cupboard shelf contain No.8s just seems just a little bare.

Duane Vermeulen, if he is available, is an obvious first choice. His leadership and experience is of enormous value, but it is his rock-hard approach to the game and his unflinching physicality that adds real power to the Springboks. His ability to read the game is unsurpassed. His ball-poaching skills over the tackle and ruck are legendary.

Behind Vermeulen the contenders all seem just a little lightweight. Warren Whiteley is perhaps the obvious second choice, again for his quiet leadership and never-say-die attitude, but he is not a player that relishes the tough stuff. Undoubtedly one of the finest tacklers in the game, he will make the hit, but he is not a ball winner after the tackle. He is not the most physical of ball carriers, and he likes to play a wider ranging game, more of a link than a carrier.

At the moment Sikhumbuzo Notshe of the Stormers is favoured by Erasmus, and he is undoubtedly a fine rugby player. He is, however, a dry-field wide runner and support player rather than a primary carrier. His tackling is good, but, again, not dominant. If the game opens up and the ball is moving from hand-to-hand a lot, he is in his element.

Dan du Preez of the Sharks must also come into the thinking, although many feel he is a one-dimensional player without the extra spark of creativity that is needed in the Springbok No.8 jersey. The final fall-back option is Francois Louw, although he is far better on the side of the scrum.

Flank (No.7)

South Africa traditionally gives the No.7 jersey to their blindside flanker.

In this position Pieter-Steph du Toit has been a revelation in 2018. Despite many still considering him as a lock first and a blind-sider second, he is undoubtedly the ideal man for the job in the new Springbok team. In fact, he seems to be the perfect blindside flanker. Fast, strong, clever, with very good game reading skills and instincts, together with an exceptional work-rate and 80-minute commitment to the cause. The fact that he can also play lock is  bonus, but he is undoubtedly the future first choice Springbok blindside flanker.

Next in line is probably Jean-Luc du Preez, especially on the slower, heavy fields of Europe. Francoise Louw, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Kyle Brink, and Nizaam Carr must not be left out of the thinking. Franco Mostert is another who can slot in on the blindside in an emergency. Siya Kolisi can also shift across to the blindside if need be.

Flank (No.6) 
Siya Kolisi is perhaps glued into this position at the moment, not only for his increasingly mature general play, but as captain of the team too. After struggling to make the switch back to the openside in the early Tests of 2018, he has started to find his game and has become increasingly influential with each subsequent Test.

There are a number of contenders in the back-up role on the open side. Francois Louw is an immediate candidate, while Marco van Staden is growing into the position, Kwagga Smith should not be discarded, and Marcell Coetzee is back playing some very good rugby in England.

The Tight Five

Locks:

South Africa is very well served in second row resources.

Whilst many like to choose a lock for the No.4 jersey and another for the No.5 jersey, I do believe that they are interchangeable in almost every respect and thus should be seen in terms of overall depth.

The current Springbok starting pair of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert are as good as any in the world. Etzebeth is imperious at the front of the lineout, and is one of the biggest ball carriers in the game. He brings a ferocious physicality to the Springbok pack, a huge presence which is offset and supported by the mongrel and work rate of Franco Mostert. The latter also brings exceptional lineout skills to the team.

Behind the current two starting locks, with Pieter-Steph du Toit probably as good a starting option too, are some more men that would easily make the starting lineup of any other international squad. Lood de Jager will be back from injury in the new year, while RG Snyman is already a regular player off the bench for the Springboks. Just behind these two we find Marven Orie, JD  Schickerling, Jason Jenkins, Chris van Zyl, and Ruan Botha.

The Springboks have plenty of locks in their spares cupboard!

Front row:

Earlier I mentioned the fashion for referring to the “spine” of a rugby team, and this is no doubt true.

However, that spine cannot function if it is not supported by the brawn and power of some really good prop forwards.

Once again, South Africa is blessed with some superb talent in these critical positions.

Tighthead prop
I am of the old school who like to say that a game is won or lost at tighthead. If a scrum cannot pressurise the opposition on their put-in while maintaining the pressure on its own ball, the game invariably becomes a struggle. The goal has to be to achieve the very minimum of parity in the scrums, and it is the tighthead’s job to achieve that parity.

South Africa is well served with some superb tightheads. At the moment Frans Malherbe has the starting role as the first choice tighthead, with any of Wilco Louw, Vincent Koch, Coenie Oosthuizen (if he can stay injury free), Trevor Nyakane, and Thomas du Toit as back up on the bench.

Loosehead Prop

As much as I suggest that the game is won or lost at tighthead, I believe that it is the loosehead’s job to make sure that the opposing tighthead doesn’t “win” the game. Once again, South Africa is well served with depth in this position.

The first choice, at the moment, rotates between Steven Kitshoff and Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira. Kitshoff has perhaps overtaken the Beast as the first choice starting prop, simply because of his youth and staying power. He is developing into a formidable prop forward, as good as any in world rugby. The Beast brings loads of experience and a powerful scrummaging style that does not bend to anyone, but is perhaps less influential in open play than the younger man.

Behind these two comes Thomas du Toit, an immensely powerful young man who is learning his trade as a loosehead having started his career on the other side of the scrum. Both Coenie Oosthuizen and Trevor Nyakane can play loosehead, and the “Ox” Retshegofaditswe Nche should also feature in the thinking.

Hooker
There is no-one quite like Malcolm Marx in the game today. Probably the best hooker in world rugby at the moment, he brings so much more to the game than any of the other contenders. He is an automatic first choice.

As back-up Bongi Mbonambi has developed into a class act and will not let the Springboks down whether he starts Tests, or comes on as a substitute.

A short head behind the two mentioned above is Akker van der Merwe, and then Bismarck du Plessis must remain in contention.  Some might still choose Chiliboy Ralepelle although I have my doubts, and Schalk Brits has been playing the mentor role to the younger members of the team.

Overall:

The depth of the Springbok talent pool seems to be fairly good.

There are a number of experienced players to guide the youngsters in the mix, although the team remains a little short of experience.

The time between now and the commencement of the Rugby World Cup in 2019 is critical in the development of the youngsters, the building of experience, and the overall gelling of the Springboks under their new coach, Rassie Erasmus.

Certainly, based on what we have seen in the first seven months of his reign as coach, things are looking up for the Springboks.