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Can the Springboks defend their World Cup title?

30 Jun 2023
Ralph Staniforth 30 Jun 2023
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  • South Africa won the 2019 Rugby World Cup
  • The Boks kick off their 2023 campaign on 10 September
  • The Springboks find themselves in the Group of Death
Springboks lift Rugby World Cup trophy
Can South Africa defend their RWC title? (Getty Images)

South Africa World Cup History

South Africa is, along with New Zealand, the most successful side at the Rugby World Cup. Both sides have won it on three occasions, although you could argue that the Springboks lead the All Blacks as they have featured in one less tournament (1987).
  • South Africa World Cup History
  • 2019 Rugby World Cup Champions
  • What has changed since 2019?
  • 2023 Rugby World Cup
  • Positions of Concern for South Africa
  • Verdict

In 2023 the Springboks will attempt to defend their world title, something only previously managed by New Zealand. The All Blacks won it in 2011 and 2015.

The Springboks won the World Cup in 1995, 2007 and 2019. Each of their wins have had a 12-year gap.

2019 Rugby World Cup Champions

The 2019 Rugby World Cup victory came against the odds for South Africa. That’s not to say that it was a huge surprise when they won it, but not many would have backed them ahead of the tournament, much less so after the first game.

18 months out for the World Cup, SA Rugby made a huge call to change the entire coaching staff. It had been a terrible few years since the 2015 World Cup with record defeats to New Zealand and a first-ever loss to Italy.

In came Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and other support staff. There wasn’t much time to the World Cup and change had to come quickly under the former Springbok and Free State flanker.

The players had to get used to a new system very quickly, especially the defensive system. There were plenty of errors along the way but the players bought into the structure and the coaches didn’t deviate.

By the time 2019 arrived Erasmus had built a side that could compete and beat anyone, as they proved with a win in New Zealand in 2018. 

Despite losing to New Zealand in their opening 2019 Rugby World Cup group match, South Africa managed to push through to win the tournament, beating England in the final. In so doing, they also became the first-ever side to win the World Cup after losing a game in the group stage.

What has changed since 2019?

The scenes from the airport, when South Africa arrived back from Japan in 2019, will stick with everyone. It was quite incredible, however, not even that could match the open bus tour around South Africa.

Nowhere else in the world does sport quite unite a nation like it does in South Africa. The momentum the Boks had built up was good, and with a British & Irish Lions tour to follow in 2021, the team was on an upwards curve.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, COVID-19 hit the world. It was unknown territory for everyone globally, and it put a halt to everything, let alone rugby.

While some teams managed to re-organise, South Africa spent the entirety of 2020 without a single game of rugby. I’m not sure any of us can fathom how that could affect any side, given that they are a year behind everyone else.

Jacques Nienaber also took over as head coach from Erasmus. When 2021 came around the main priority was the B+I Lions tour. That tour was marred by adversity, mostly due to Rassie Erasmus’ now infamous video for which he faced a ban.

Nevertheless, the Springboks overcame all the obstacles, including a first Test defeat to win the series. They did not stray from their pressure game that won them the World Cup despite many calls for them to introduce a bit more flamboyance. 

Nienaber constantly reminded everyone that while they had always planned on making changes to the strategy, they had little time with no rugby in 2020.

Slowly Nienaber has started coming good on his promise. The Springboks, on their 2022 Northern Hemisphere tour, certainly showed more on attack, although there were plenty of teething mistakes. Not too dissimilar from the errors made on defensive reads when Nienaber and Erasmus first took over.

2023 Rugby World Cup

Personnel wise not too much has changed for the Springboks. They have had a few retirements, while others’ form has dropped or injuries have cost them game time. But overall the squad is reasonably settled with many of the 2019 winners still around.

The big concern for the Springboks is the injury to inspirational captain, Siya Kolisi. He is expected to be back around the start of the World Cup, but he will miss the Rugby Championship and the warm-up games. That means he will go into the showpiece event very undercooked.

To say South Africa don’t have the players to cover for the captain would be a massive disservice to the loose forwards in the squad. There is also more than enough experience to handle the captaincy, but not many will command the respect Kolisi has from referees, opposition and supporters. His aura would certainly be missed if he cannot make it back in time.

We however cannot skip past the biggest obstacle facing the mighty Springboks at the World Cup…the draw. They are paired with Ireland, Scotland, Romania and Tonga in the group of death.

To think that one of Scotland, South Africa or Ireland will fail to make the quarter-final shows how tough it will be. From there, if the Springboks progress, they will most likely face either France or New Zealand in the quarters.

World Rugby has faced much criticism for this draw because it takes place three years before the tournament. It has created a very lopsided draw but anyone who comes through and wins it from there will have no doubt deserved it.

Positions of Concern for South Africa

As previously mentioned, South Africa now have a very experienced side with a number of very promising youngsters. But there are certainly some positions that lack cover should injuries occur.

At this time, first-choice flyhalf, Handre Pollard is injured. He will miss the 2023 Rugby Championship but should be back for the warm-up games. The concern is that if he gets injured, who comes into the crucial number 10 jumper?

Utility-back, Damian Willemse did the job in the November Test matches. The Stormers man is exceptionally talented and can certainly do a job at 10, but there are some concerns.

Willemse is exciting and has improved his consistency over the last couple of years, but the team does lose some of his counter-attacking ability from fullback, or his effect off the bench.

However, the main concern with Willemse is goal-kicking. He is not up to international standard in that regard, and doesn’t even kick as first-choice at provincial level. This resulted in Cheslin Kolbe taking kicking duties in November.

The phrase that goal-kicking wins World Cups will never change. In tight matches, this is a crucial part of the game.

Another Stormers player, Manie Libbok has forced his way into the squad recently. He has been exceptional at provincial level, but his consistency needs work. He has blown hot and cold in some big games, and hasn’t had much time in the green and gold.

That said, Libbok is an exciting prospect for South Africa, and if they are looking to attack a bit more, he certainly offers a different approach. His goal-kicking, while not exceptional, is solid enough to rely on.

The last option is Elton Jantjies. The former Lions flyhalf has been in the Springbok fold for a number of years now, understands the game plan and is a good goal-kicker. He has however had some disciplinary issues over the last 12 months which led to him being dropped from the squad altogether.

Jantjies is however back in for the Rugby Championship despite playing second-tier rugby in France. It is a tough call to make, as all three have pros and cons after Pollard, but are any of the three good enough to steer the Boks to glory in France?

We have already spoken about Siya Kolisi. South Africa have enough talent to cover at flank, but if Kolisi is out a lot more than just talent is lost.

The other main concern will be that of outside centre. Lukhanyo Am is undoubtedly among the top rugby players in the world at the moment. He is simply superb, on attack and defence. He is relied upon in so many aspects of the system that losing him for a period of time could cause major concern.

His deputy, Jesse Kriel has been in the system since 2014 so understands international rugby. He is solid but does not provide the flair of Am, especially in attack. 

Otherwise, I feel South Africa are well covered in all positions, although, losing any key player, like with any side, could have drastic consequences.


South Africa have everything they need to defend their title. They have an effective game plan, players with experience to execute in big moments, and plenty of talent. South Africa will still rely on their set piece and forward dominance, but if they can add something extra in attack, it will make them much more of a threat.

The road to the final will be immensely difficult for the Boks, as it will be for world No.1 side, Ireland or the improving Scotland. 

South Africa Odds at 2023 Rugby World Cup

South Africa are priced at 5.50 with Betway to defend their title. They are fourth favourites behind France, New Zealand and Ireland.

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