The absolute panic in South Africa about the state of Springbok rugby needs to be reassessed, writes Mark Keohane.
The Springboks haven’t played a Test since thumping England in the World Cup final in 2019. In this Covid-enforced absence everyone seems to have forgotten about the last time the Boks played, who played for the Boks and just how impressive these individuals continue to be, regardless of where they are playing.
Why? The state of our local competition, the stagnant rugby on display and the injury to the “irreplaceable” Handrè Pollard.
Let’s take a step back and give ourselves some perspective.
Our Currie Cup and local Super Rugby was won by a Bulls side who played brilliant, brutal South African rugby, which incorporated an astute tactical kicking game and expansive movements on attack.
Of that Bulls side, captain and Springbok incumbent Duane Vermeulen is still among the world’s best No 8s, Marco van Staden was a presence at flank and throughout the franchises the Springboks are certainly not at a loss for other loose forwards, with Springbok captain Siya Kolisi’s move to the Sharks bound to rejuvenate his mind as much as his rugby. Pieter-Steph du Toit will come back from injury, Marcell Coetzee is set to return from overseas and Sikhumbuzo Notshe continues to flourish at the Sharks.
Cornal Hendricks proved a masterstroke at inside centre for the Bulls and may very well have reignited his Springbok career, Morne Steyn on returning to the Bulls has proven, through a season of incredibly well rounded performances, that he is the obvious big match replacement in the absence of Handré Pollard, while we know that the once prodigal and now matured Johan Goosen is making his South African return with strong Springbok intent.
Frans Steyn fires in his 30s as the best Springbok utility back to have played and Curwin Bosch adds depth to the No 10/15 squad options. Sharks captain Lukhanyo Am has followed up his outstanding Springbok performances with consistency in every provincial game.
Consider the front row options: Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Oxc Nché, Thomas Du Toit, Trevor Nyakane and Lizo Gqoboka. Individually, they’ve all been strong in the domestic competitions.
With a little comfort to be taken in what talent and experience exists in South Africa, let’s look overseas to where many of the World Cup-winning squad plays.
The entire starting back three plays outside of South Africa currently. Cheslin Kolbe, every week, makes further strides towards being labelled the best outside back in the World, and has proven to be equally capable in almost every position aside from centre during his time at Toulouse. Makazole Mapimpi has made an immediate impact in Japan for the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, where Willie Le Roux has also been consistently good for Toyota Verblitz.
Damian De Allende, at centre, has been outstanding for Munster and his international return will see him link up with Am. Then there’s Jan Serfontein at Montpelleir.
Faf De Klerk excels for the Sale Sharks, while Cobus Reinach has been climbing the scrumhalf ladder at Montepellier. Back home, Herschel Jantjies is as good as he was 18 months ago and the Bulls duo of Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier are better players for working with legendary Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez. Don’t discount the merits of Ruan Pienaar. He just turned 37 years-old but I would have no hesitation playing him against the British & Irish Lions.
Onto some of the forwards options abroad.
Eben Etzebeth has been following a similar trajectory to Springbok legend, quickly turned local-French-legend Bakkies Botha, in becoming Toulon’s primary enforcer. Etzebeth, who at 29 has already played in 85 Test, has evolved his game in France and is being used as a blindside option.
Lood De Jager with his steel-pin shoulders is back in action for Sale and Franco Mostert never seems to have a bad game, whether for the Boks or where he plays in Japan. Vincent Koch is a beast and Malcolm Marx is … well … Malcolm Marx … one of the best in the world in his position.
Look at the individual quality available to the Boks leadership of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienhaber.
Stop writing off the Boks before they have already played a Test.
There is every reason to be as optimistic about the Boks as there was seven days before they pulverized an England team many would have had us believe could not be beaten.
Get excited when you think about the Boks in 2021 and whether they play the Lions in South Africa or in the United Kingdom have faith in them taking the series. I certainly do.