The 2023 Springboks Rugby World Cup squad of 33 will arrive in France respected as defending champions but definitely not feared because of squad composition, writes Mark Keohane.
It is one thing to have many quality players and quite another to have many quality players in specific positions. Handre Pollard & Lukhanyo Am’s absence from the 2023 World Cup makes the defending champions South Africa remarkably more vulnerable.
Evan Roos and Jean-Luc du Preez have not made the World Cup squad. That tells you the depth and potency of those who have been selected. No playing nation in the world is as blessed as South Africa when it comes to loose-forward options. Ditto, lock forward, which softens the non-availability, through injury, of Lood de Jager.
The Boks are fortunate to have four frontline locks who can start Test matches and still have the likes of Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph du Toit as lock options.
But it is at No 10 and No 13 where the Boks in the past five years have pretty much been a one personality position.
Handre Pollard has been the ‘go to’ for everything Springboks at No 10 in a the big Tests. He was sublime in the 2019 World Cup play-offs and the player of the play-offs in the 2019 World Cup success. His game is tailored to World Cups. The Springboks, without him, become a very different proposition; different and more of an attacking threat, but vulnerable in so many other areas.
With Pollard they play a strangling game. Without him, they are forced to be more expansive, and that makes them as vulnerable as it does a threat.
Am has had no equal in South African rugby since his debut and right now he is regarded as right up there with the likes of Pieter Muller, Japie Mulder and Jacque Fourie. There is even a case to be made that his all-round game is more flattering than those mentioned icons of the midfield in the professional era.
AM is THAT good.
There is not a like for like replacement for him at No 13.
Jesse Kriel will do a job, but he is no AM. Kriel has been in the Bok mix since 2012 and with each year his importance has diminished.
Pray tell what did Montepellier based Jan Serfontein ever do to annoy the Bok coaching leadership. The world’s best u20 player in 2012 and a Springbok until 2017, he has never been in the Rassie Erasmus/Jacques Nienaber discussion since 2018.
Yet, he has been a consistent in Montpellier, a natural who can play No 12 and No 13.
Had he not played a Test for the Boks, he’d no doubt be playing for France at this World Cup.
The Boks have lost an asset in AM and with it they have lost an advantage.
Equally, with Pollard.
The squad remains powerful, but not imposing.
Add the uncertainty around the inspirational skipper Siya Kolisi and there has been an attack on the aura of the defending champions.
Marco van Staden, a fine player, benefits because of the unknown that is Kolisi’s recovery.
South Africans, as they should, will cheer whichever Boks XV run onto the field and, as is the way of Bok supporters, the Boks will win every time. Statistically, it is different. The Boks lose 37 percent of their Tests and have lost four of the seven World Cups.
Patriotism has to be balanced with perspective.
Equally, questions have to be asked how it got to this when the Boks go to the 2023 World Cup with one specialist flyhalf who has started three Tests and a back-up No 10 who doesn’t start at flyhalf for his province. They also go to the World Cup with one player who is the starting goal kicker for his professional franchise/club. That player is Manie Libbok.
The temptation must have been to include Elton Jantjies; just because he has been there and experienced it all since his first Bok tour in 2012. The name of Ruan Pienaar is too easily dismissed, unless he said he was not a consideration.
Four scrumhalves have been picked when the versatility of this squad could have accommodated two and asked Cheslin Kolbe to do a job as back-up No 9, as he has done as a fill in goalkicker.
The axing of Thomas du Toit and Joseph Dweba surprised, given the loyalty shown to both over the past few years, but neither could quibble. They have never produced performances that matched the selectors belief in them.
I feel for Roos and Du Preez. They were simply not given a chance to break down the door. To give them 20 and 30 minutes respectively out of 360 in four Test this season is not an opportunity but an insult.
For me it was Hendrikse or Williams as the 3rd No 9. Both are good enough, but both offer different qualities.
AM’s injury has opened the door for Andre Esterhuizen in the midfield mix, but Kriel is the only regular No 13 in the squad. Canan Moodie, who played there as a teenager at Boland Landbou, would be the next option. To shift De Allende out one isn’t as simple as it seems. There is a decidedly different skill set needed to play 12 and 13.
Fourie’s selection is the stuff of romance novels. He has the story that will inspire every overseas-based player to return to South Africa. He is a popular selection and a fan favourite. He gives every ‘ou man’ hope.
But, if he was always going to go as the third hooker option, then why was he not used once in three Rugby Championship Tests in this role? Why was he not used at the end of last year in that role? Why has he so sparingly been given Test minutes in the last two international campaigns? He has played hooker but it was a decade ago.
Jean Kleyn’s selection is a proper one and he, like RG Snyman, can replicate their lock partnership form for URC Champions Munster in the latter stages of the 2022/23 URC. Kleyn played for Ireland in 2019 and will now play for the Boks in 2023. I hope his experience extends beyond a quarter-final departure.
Four years of planning as the defending champions comes down to this final 33 – and there is something I find amiss if the planning has been so to the point.
There was never transparency from within the leadership about the seriousness of Pollard’s injury, although it was the worst kept secret in South African rugby. AM was on the road back from injury and there was no need to play him in Buenos Aires last Saturday. De Jager was just unfortunate in Auckland.
The squad is heavily reliant on allrounders, which has its merits in cricket but in rugby doesn’t always translate to performance.
Rugby requires specialists in certain positions, specifically at No 10. To that individual goes the game management and control of 80 minutes. So too, the belief in a specialist goal kicker who averages 75 percent-plus.
This is a squad that will have most Bok supporters loving the individuals in the squad & raving about the possibilities, but it is a squad that lacks balance in specialist positions and it is a squad too reliant on 2019 history and on hopeful player injury recovery – none more so than Siya Kolisi.