It is a Springboks insurance policy that will age like a good wine, writes Mark Keohane, in assessing the squad he would select to tame the British & Irish Lions.
Veteran halfbacks Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn are the insurance policy I’d invest in for the Springboks Test series against the British & Irish Lions.
Over the past six months, I’ve resisted picking my favoured Springboks for the showdown with the men in red, as the relevance is more when we are three months out from the tour.
We’ve reached that stage now and to answer those enquiries as to who I’d favour, I wouldn’t look past the core of the 2019 Rugby World Cup-winning match 23.
For the first Test, I’d want the run-on XV that pulverised England 32-12 in the World Cup final. The only two reservations I would have for the Test opener would be flyhalf Handre Pollard and flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, given they both suffered serious injury in 2020 and have yet to play a competitive game.
However, there are three months to the tour and four months till the Test series starts and both are expected to be in the squad, if not necessarily as starting options for the opening Test.
If I look at best case scenario, they’d be natural selections. Pollard was outstanding at the World Cup and scored 22 points in the final. Du Toit has consistently been South Africa’s most imposing forward when he has played.
I’d have no hesitation in picking Steyn to start if Pollard was not fit. I’d also have (Ruan) Pienaar very close to the match 23, given his utility value and also his immense experience, be it in South Africa or abroad where he played for Ulster for close to a decade.
I am favouring South Africa to sweep the series, be it three or four Tests. I don’t see the Lions winning a Test. Lions coach Warren Gatland’s challenge will be to find a settled combination efficient and effective enough to play with enough cohesion and confidence to beat the Springboks.
It is the hosts who have the advantage of consistency in both players and management.
The Boks have lost Francois Louw, Schalk Brits and Tendai Mtawarira to retirement and their value during the 2019 season cannot be overstated. It is why having the likes of Morne Steyn, Francois Steyn and Pienaar in the squad can only benefit the world champions.
Experience will be critical to the outcome of this series.
South Africa’s World Cup winners, individually, have been the form players in their respective competitions in South Africa, Britain, Ireland, France and Japan.
For the most, the Springboks are spoilt for choice in each position, with the exception being at No 8 where there is no obvious replacement for Duane Vermeulen. There is a huge gulf in class between Vermeulen and the next best No 8 option. Vermeulen, since 2014, has been in the top three No 8s internationally and in a class of his own among South African No 8 options.
He has one international season left in those legs of his and the Lions schedule is perfectly timed to give him the most wonderful of send-offs.
The locking options are plenty, but also very dependent on fitness. RG Snyman has been sidelined for nine months but the expectation is he will be fit. Lood de Jager was recently injured and is said to be in a race against time. Eben Etzebeth is playing well for Toulon and has been used with success as a blindside flank option. Franco Mostert is a machine and could also be used as a blindside option, should Du Toit not be fit. Don’t forgot the Toulouse-based tough nut Rynhardt Elstadt. He is a known Rassie Erasmus favourite and was in the Bok mix in 2019.
Marcell Coetzee is back from Ulster and he provides cover at 6, 7 and 8. His selection will depend on Du Toit’s fitness and the balance of the loose-forward combination. He also brings experience. Of the other foreign-based options, it is well known that Montpellier’s Jacques du Plessis has also caught he eye of the selectors.
Du Plessis, who prospered under Jake White’s tutelage, is comfortable playing in the second row and the back row.
Don’t dismiss the claims of the Du Preez twins. They’ve been very good for Sale, while players like Cobus and Jasper Wiese, Ruan Ackermann and even Jono Ross have dazzled on occasion.
Locally, the loose-forward options haven’t changed much, with Sikhumbuzo Notshe bound to be in the mix.
The front row is well stocked, both locally and foreign-based. You could pick three front row combinations of international quality.
There are several younger players, in the forwards and backs, who I expect to be blooded in this international season, but I don’t see them featuring in the Test series against the Lions.
The Lions only visit every 12 years and for those occasions I would go for the known quality of an experienced player, as opposed to a youthful unknown.
*Disclaimer … Don’t write off the BONE COLLECTOR Willem Alberts. He has 40 minutes a Test in him to rattle a few British & Irish bones.