Rugby Championship Preview:  South Africa

South Africa have had a horrendous time since the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The decision by the 2015 coach, Heyneke Meyer, to recall as many old soldiers, and even some retired veterans, as possible whilst eschewing the development of the younger ranks left the Springbok cupboard bare when his tenure was over and a new coach had to take over in 2016.

The new coach, Allister Coetzee, was not given any time nor space to develop his own team, nor was he allowed to choose his own support staff – it seemed that he was deliberately being set up to fail. Of course, he did not help his cause much with some stupendously wayward selections and weird game plans and strategies. The result was a diabolical period in South African rugby.

The team and it’s hugely demanding fans suffered through two losing seasons, including a previously unheard of defeat to Italy.

Allister Coetzee’s term of office was cut short and Rassie Erasmus was heaved up onto a white charger – he would be the knight that rode in to save the Springboks from total ignominy.

His arrival coincided with policy changes at the board level that allowed him carte blanche to pick overseas based players for his team. He was allowed to choose his own support staff too. All the stumbling blocks and quicksand that Allister Coetzee found in his path, mysteriously vanished as Rassie rode into twon.

A June series against a hyper-confident Eddie Jones and his England squad showed signs that the Springboks seemed to be turning things around. There was a new passion in evidence, there was a game plan, there were new disciplines, and there was leadership. The Springboks comfortably won the June series against England 2-1 and played with some intelligence and strategy for the first time in years.

The Springboks go into the 2018 Rugby Championships with a new optimism and focus, which is already an improvement over the previous two years where the team seemed to approach the RC series looking like some rabbit mesmerised by an approaching cobra.

Confidence is such an important element in any team’s preparations, and Eddie Jones’ England has helped the Springbok cause enormously.

The return of some of the old salts who play their rugby trade overseas has certainly helped. Willie le Roux provided the calmness and nous that had been missing in the fullback slot since the day he was dumped by Coetzee in 2016. Duane Vermeulen brought the mongrel and quiet leadership that supported his captain through thick and thin. Faf de Klerk brought his irrepressible enthusiasm and quickness at the base of the scrum, while Handre Pollard returned from injury with a calm assurance and game-management that had been missing during the Coetzee era.

In addition, Rassie Erasmus started to select players for specific positions, looking for specialists, without the randomness of some of Coetzee’s decisions, such as flyhalves playing full-back and wings at centre, specialist 13’s playing in the 12 jersey, and the like.

Erasmus has also blooded youngsters, with careful consideration for the needs of the team as a whole.

There is a certain logic to the way Erasmus has gone about his business. He is building a team with his eyes firmly fixed on the 2019 World Cup. All other tournaments and Tests along the way to Japan 2019 are simply coincidental.

As he has rebuilt the Springbok team from the ashes of the Coetzee nightmare, Erasmus has also worked at establishing a leadership core. The captaincy of Siya Kolisi, the first black player ever to lead the Springboks, was a superb choice from so many different perspectives that there is no time to enumerate them all. Suffice that he has the respect of the players around him, and has the gravitas that provides for a commanding presence. He has much to learn about the art of captaincy, and relies on the likes of the Beast Mtawarira, Pollard, Vermeulen, le Roux, Marx, Du Toit and Mostert for assistance. This leadership group will be strengthened when Eben Etzebeth returns to the fray.

If nothing else has happened between 2017 and 2018, at least there are now identifiable leaders in the team, men who stand up and take responsibility. This was a huge problem in the previous two years, especially after Warren Whiteley was injured.

South Africa has always produced powerful forwards, and the current crop are as good as any. Established world class locks in Mostert, Du Toit, and Etzebeth are supported by the rising stars of RG Snyman and Marvin Orie in the second row, with both Mostert and Du Toit capable of playing Test rugby on the blindside flank too. The front row features two of the best loose-heads in the business, with Steven Kitshoff usually playing the impact role off the bench after the Beast Mtawarira starts the game. On the other side of the scrum the considerable muscle power of Frans Malherbe and a refreshed Wilco Louw is supported by the strength of Thomas du Toit.

In the centre of the scrum the Springboks feature Malcolm Marx, rapidly building a reputation as one of the finest rugby players in the world today. His under-study, Bongi Mbonambi proved that he is more than capable of starting for his country with some fine performances against the English in the mid-year while Marx was injured.

The loose-forward combination offers Erasmus with something of a conundrum.

Siya Kolisi, on form, is as good as any in the world, especially in his support play out wide and when carrying the ball into space and linking with his backs; he is a chaser, a tackler, a carrier, but he is no great fetcher. Without a doubt, the captain will start, hence Erasmus most look to his other two loose-forward selections to provide the balance, with close-in carrying and midfield support play, together with ball fetching as the primary requirements. He will be looking closely at new cap Marco van Staden, thinking about the old head of Francois Louw, considering the hitting power of Jean-Luc du Preez, and the defensive skills of Warren Whiteley, and then there is the impressive power and ball carrying of Cyle Brink as he looks for the ideal balance to support his captain.

The Springbok forwards offer a powerful scrum, a polished backline, and some superb loose-forwards. If the pack fires, they will be a handful for any opponent.

At the back, the form of Handré Pollard has been a crucial element in the Springbok successes against England. In Pollard they have a flyhalf capable of guiding the team around the field, managing the game, leading the defence, and a man who can also be trusted to kick his goals. He has the calmness and unflappability that is critical on the biggest stages of world rugby. He has the skill-set too!

Backing Pollard in the flyhalf slot is the twenty-year-old Damian Willemse, one of three new caps in the squad. The young fly-half impressed in his first full season of Super Rugby with his running ability and his strong defence. Along with Willemse the squad includes, somewhat inexplicably, Elton Jantjies, despite his known mental fragility and lack of big game temperament. Quite what Erasmus’ thinking is remains unclear as far as Jantjies is concerned.

The injury to Damian de Allende, streets ahead of anyone else in the South African Super Rugby form book, has resulted in Erasmus only having one specialist inside centre in André Esterhuizen, although there has been talk of starting Pollard in the 12 jersey with Willemse at flyhalf.

Outside centre sees Jesse Kriel as the incumbent and in some good form for the first time since early 2015. He is backed by the likes of Lukhanyo Am and Lionel Mapoe, all three of whom have been fair performers in the 13 jersey through the year.

The Springbok midfield is perhaps a little “spongy” – just a little short of sparkle and game-breakers. De Allende’s injury could not have come at a worse time.

Scrumhalf is perhaps the Springboks’ weakest link. If Faf de Klerk is injured or is not available due to club commitments back in England, the rest of the pot is a bit empty. Journeyman Ross Cronje has been in better form in the latter stages of the Super Rugby series, but his wayward box-kicking is any coach’s nightmare and he provides very little in imaginative thinking, while Papier and van Zyl are still way short of experience and game time at the top level.

Out on the wings Erasmus has unearthed some very good prospects, with Dyantyi, Mapimpi and the veteran Mvovu all capable. All three have shown that they do not fear the high-ball and are prepared to tackle. They are players that all look for opportunities to attack and have the nous to run intelligent support lines off the likes of Willie le Roux coming from the fullback position. Once Sbu Nkosi is over his injury problems the Springboks will have another player with excellent striking ability.

Prospects:

South Africa will be targeting wins over Argentina home and away to get their campaign up and running. The next game, the third of the campaign, will provide the first real test of the year as they take on the Wallabies in Australia, and the Aussies will probably be their primary target for 2018. A win in Australia will break something of a jinx, before the team heads over the Tasman to face New Zealand.

They will also target a home win over Australia back in South Africa on the 29th September.

The measure of their development since the awful days of 2016 and 2017 will be in their two Tests against New Zealand. More especially, how will they fare in New Zealand?

The Springboks still head into the tournament as underdogs in comparison to the All Blacks, and perhaps even the Wallabies, but they have a renewed spirit and the potential to beat anyone on their day.

Prediction: Joint Second with Australia.

The Squad:

Forwards

Cyle Brink, Jean-Luc du Preez, Thomas du Toit, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Franco Mostert, Tendai Mtawarira, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Akker van der Merwe, Marco van Staden, Warren Whiteley (No 8, Lions, 17, 15 – 3t)

Backs (15)

Lukhanyo Am, Ross Cronjé, Faf de Klerk, Aphiwe Dyantyi, André Esterhuizen, Elton Jantjies, Jesse Kriel, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Lionel Mapoe, Lwazi Mvovo, Embrose Papier, Handré Pollard, Ivan van Zyl, Damian Willemse

Fixtures:

Saturday, 18 August: vs Argentina (home)
Saturday, 25 August: vs Argentina (away)
Saturday, 8 September, vs Australia (away)
Saturday, 15 September, vs New Zealand (away)
Saturday, 29 September, vs Australia (home)
Saturday, 6 October, vs New Zealand (home)