Rassie Erasmus went back to work last week after a 60-day suspension for criticizing umpires in the 2021 series between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions.
Although Erasmus will not be allowed to travel to Test matches until September 30, he will be free to resume his duties as rugby director and assist national team coach Jacques Nienaber with plans for a 2022 season that will lay the groundwork for the 2023 World Cup campaign.
Since Erasmus and Nienaber returned to South Africa in 2018, they have made it clear that this Bok side has three priorities: results, transformation and team development.
While results and the pace of transformation in 2022 will remain important measures of progress, development ahead of the final Test of the season against England – and then the 2023 World Cup in France – will be paramount.
Champions still have something to prove
2021 was a milestone for South African rugby. Nienaber’s team became the first team in the Southern Hemisphere to win a series against the Lions since 2009. They followed up a rare away win against the All Blacks with a win that ended the drought against Wales in Cardiff. They finished the season as the number 1 team in the world.
That’s not to say the Boks haven’t failed or experienced quite a few disappointments. They struggled to find their mojo in the Rugby Championship until the very last game against New Zealand. They ended the season on a low note when they went to England.
Fast forward to the present, and some coaches and players are still hurting after that 27-26 defeat at Twickenham. It’s fair to say that the two defeats to Australia, the defeat to New Zealand in Townsville and that near miss against England leave an otherwise experienced group with something to prove in 2022.
Barring setbacks from injury, all top players should be available for the three-Test series against Wales in July, the Rugby Championship and the first three games of the four-day tour to Europe in November.
However, the season finale against England on November 26 is outside the international window and the overseas Boks will most likely return to their clubs in Europe and Japan. For this reason, the Boks will be drafting a team made up largely, if not exclusively, of players from South Africa.
The wealth of SA talent abroad
More than 500 South Africans play professional rugby abroad. North of 200, they compete in the top leagues of Europe and Japan. There are enough overseas based South Africans with international experience in those tournaments to fill three Springbok XVs.
Since Erasmus and Nienaber joined Bok in 2018, they have been working on SA Rugby’s revised admissions policy to stack the national team with stars from abroad. A whopping 17 of the 32 players who toured the UK in November 2021 were based at foreign clubs. That number would have been higher if Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks, England), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Toyota Verblitz, Japan) and Cheslin Kolbe (Toulon, France) had not been ruled out due to injuries.
At least seven foreign-based players featured in the Bok starting XV over those three Tests. Nine players who practice their trade abroad – as well as Trevor Nyakane, who has since switched from the Bulls to French club Racing 92 – started against England at Twickenham, with a further five on the bench.
Think what a Bok team might look like without those 15 players. In some positions – such as lock, blindside flank, No 8 and fly half – both the first and second choice options are based on foreign clubs. The team facing England at Twickenham could have a number of third-choice options – or worse, if there is an injury crisis at any point in the build-up.
Look for front row answers in the URC
Nienaber hopes the United Rugby Championship (URC) will provide some solutions in the coming months. After a long hiatus forced by Covid, the four South African franchises will resume their respective campaigns on January 22.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers will face each other over the next four weeks, before moving on to more challenging matches against club opponents from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
Nienaber and Erasmus will be following these matches closely, looking for players to prepare and care for for that final game against England – and possibly for the 2023 World Cup.
The Boks are particularly thin in positions such as hooker and flyhalf. That lack of depth can come to light if they don’t sooner or later find alternatives to their foreign-based stars.
Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx shared hooking responsibilities for much of the 2021 season, with rookie Joseph Dweba receiving just one test cap. Mbonambi, based in the Sharks, will be available for all Tests in 2022, while Marx (Kubota Spears, Japan) and Dweba (Bordeaux Bègles, France) return to their clubs for the clash against England.
The bottom line is that one more whore from South Africa will be needed for the season finale in Twickenham. Johan Grobbelaar of the Bulls traveled with the extended squad of the Boks during the 2021 Rugby Championship and subsequent UK tour. Former Bok whore Bismarck du Plessis has been outstanding for the Bulls this season and could be a great short-term fix.
The squads for the game against England could reveal Nienaber’s thought process regarding the World Cup squad. The Boks go with three hookers in the group to France and another is on standby. Mbonambi and Marx are the favorites for the match selection, but the identities of the third and fourth choice have yet to be determined.
Loading new Bok flyhalf
Handré Pollard, who will transfer from Montpellier to Leicester later this year, will not be available for the England game. Neither will the Boks’ second-choice Elton Jantjies, who currently plays for the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan.
For the first time since Erasmus and Nienaber joined the set up in 2018, the Boks are without at least one of their senior playmakers.
Morné Steyn is the only other player to have started at number 10 in the past four years. The veteran was confident to return to the squad in 2021 after a five-year hiatus and made some significant contributions on and off the field. Indeed, who could forget his series-winning penalty in the third Test against the Lions.
It was hoped that Steyn would continue to feature as the team’s third flyhalf option until the World Cup. The talented player appeared likely to be a mentor to the younger players, much like Schalk Brits did during the successful 2019 campaign in South Africa. However, ahead of the 2021 tour to the UK, Steyn made the decision to retire and spend more time with his family.
Steyn’s departure has forced Bok’s coaches to reconsider Damian Willemse as a bona fide option at number 10. Willemse started his career in that position, but has played plenty of rugby as a fullback for the Stormers in recent seasons, making all four his own. start for Boks at No 15. It remains to be seen if he will get more playing time at flyhalf for club and country in the run-up to the final Test of the season against England.
The flyhalf’s position – and more specifically the lack of experienced options – has been extensively analyzed over the past four seasons. Now that Pollard and Jantjies are out at the end of November, Nienaber will be forced to tackle this question immediately. Again, the roster of who will start at number 10 – and who will cover from the bench – may be shaped by a desire to develop alternatives to Pollard and Jantjies in the roster for the 2023 World Cup.
It looks like Curwin Bosch will leave the Sharks for an appearance in France, and it remains to be seen if Bulls, Johan Goosen, recovering from a serious injury, will be available for the 2022 test season.
Jordan Hendrikse of the Lions and Kade Wolhuter of the Stormers seem to have skill and temperament in spades, and it will be interesting to see them bounce back from their respective injury setbacks. Boeta Chamberlain (Sharks) is another young flyhalf pushing for higher honors.
Performance in the upcoming URC matches – especially against foreign teams not at home – will show whether these players are worthy of being supported at the Test level. After that, Nienaber must ensure that these individuals are brought up to speed for one of rugby’s greatest challenges: a winter test at Twickenham.
Boks is looking for a solid start to the season
Nienaber’s focus on development in 2022 will largely depend on the national team’s results in the early stages of the season.
If the Boks win the first two Tests against Wales in July – and reach the series – Nienaber will have the freedom to set up a more experimental match in the third match.
When the Boks beat Ireland and France in November, Nienaber then gives the fringe players a chance against Italy.
A few defeats here and there, and the coach will likely return to his strongest available combination.
The results will not affect the team selected to play against England on November 26, as it will be played outside the testing window. That is why Nienaber and Erasmus will be on the hunt for local talent in the coming months and performances in the URC are more important than ever. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 which is available for R25 from Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookshops. For your nearest supplier, please click here.