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South Africa Rugby World Cup Squad - Injury-hit Springboks forced into untimely changes

ralph-staniforth
08 Aug 2023
Ralph Staniforth 08 Aug 2023
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  • South Africa start their World Cup campaign on 10 September
  • The defending champions announced their squad on Tuesday, 8 August
  • Handre Pollard and Lukhanyo Am are two big names not in the squad
South Africa Rugby World Cup squad
The Springbok squad for the 2023 Rugby World Cup has been announced (Getty Images)

Jacques Nienaber announced his 2023 Rugby World Cup squad on Tuesday afternoon in an exciting ceremony attended by all the players.

In the weeks leading up to the squad announcement social media was abuzz with talk of who would make it, and who would remain at home. Debate was heated over a number of players, but in the coaching ranks there always seemed to be a sense of calm.

When Rassie Erasmus took over as head coach in 2018, bringing Nienaber with him as an assistant coach, the target for them was always this World Cup. However, their plans worked exceedingly well early on which resulted in a 2019 World Cup title.

But optimism isn’t very high among the public anymore. The form of the side over the last five weeks has been patchy at best with some stalwarts struggling for form. However, many had not played for some time, so it is likely just a bit of rustiness and a lot of rotation.

Omissions


A couple of hours prior to the squad announcement a story however broke that Handre Pollard, Lukhanyo Am and Lood de Jager had been left out of the squad. Once you get over the initial shock you live in hope that it is just one of those rumours where someone is trying to gain a bit of traction before the announcement. Or if accurate, it had to be injury related.

Unfortunately for the South African public, the latter turned out to be true. Pollard has been the first-choice flyhalf since 2014 and is considered among the best in his position. His goal-kicking is also a great attribute.

Pollard is undoubtedly the biggest loss of the three. Not because he is so much better than the others, but rather because the Springboks' depth at flyhalf is dire at the moment.

Elton Jantjies has been Pollard’s deputy since Erasmus arrived in 2018, but form and disciplinary issues cost him his spot some time back. The Stormers, Manie Libbok is now the incumbent and in fact the only recognised flyhalf in the entire squad.

Libbok is by some distance the best 10 playing in South Africa at the moment. He has led the Stormers with conviction over the last two seasons to two successive URC finals, one of which turned into a trophy.

However, Libbok only made his debut on the 2022 end-of-year tour and the Rugby Championship opener in 2023 was his first start. Has he had enough time to learn all the systems?

Further to that, Libbok has thrived at the Stormers in very different circumstances from what he will find in the international setup. He will not have that freedom with ball in hand and he will have to perform with the boot - both tactically and at goal. One would however imagine that the coaching staff have put in plenty of work to get him up to speed.

Then, Lukhanyo Am is possibly the best outside centre in the world. Not on the form he has shown in 2023, he has been nowhere near his best, mainly due to injuries. However, he was sublime in 2021 and 2022 and plays a huge part in both the attacking and defensive system of the Springboks.

His deputy is Jesse Kriel who is no stranger to international rugby. This is his third World Cup, and he has the experience, quality, and guile to fill in for Am. He may not have quite the same ability to break a game open, but he is solid and consistent.

While Lood de Jager is also a big blow considering the importance he plays in the Springbok lineout, South Africa are very, very well stocked at lock. I wouldn’t think his absence won’t be felt, but I do feel like it will be the least felt of the three key players missing.

Unbalanced Squad


Once the squad was announced it had many, including myself scratching my head. On paper, it just looks very unbalanced. 

While many will question it, it is hardly a criticism. After Erasmus, Nienaber and co led South Africa out of a very dark period in 2018, they have plenty of credit in the bank with the South African public.

But, for some reason, they have selected four scrumhalves, I doubt any squad has ever gone to the World Cup with four specialist 9s. There are also only five props, two hookers and one flyhalf. A number of the players within the squad can indeed cover other positions, but it is normally specialists who win you games.

With Am out injured, Kriel will be the first choice 13. However, there is no backup for him, which means should he go down, someone who does not play their club rugby in that position will have to step up. That is such a crucial position in the Springbok setup, particularly on defence, so one can only hope the coaches have a solid plan.

Nienaber/Erasmus Plan


Here is the thing though, and yes, much of it might come across as far-fetched, but Rassie Erasmus is known for his sometimes-bizarre plans. Remember, he is the one that sat on the roof of the Free State Stadium during his Cheetahs coaching days, showing players different colour cards so they knew what move to use.

So, all three of Pollard, de Jager and Am are on the standby list. This tells us that at some point they are expected to be fit, and should injuries occur before and during the tournament, they could be called up. Also, they technically have until 26 August to announce their squad, so they can make changes as they please until that point.

That’s a huge risk if it is indeed the plan. Once the tournament starts all injured players have to be ruled out by an independent doctor, so while unethical, and you’d hope its not a route any coach will try and take, it is very difficult to fake an injury to a player to get someone else in.

Experience will however tell them that it is likely that injuries will occur before or during the tournament, it’s just the nature of rugby, and sport in general.

In conclusion, the Springboks have the ability to defend their title, but they have been inconsistent since their 2019 victory. Given the draw they’ve been handed, winning four/five big games on the bounce is going to be tough, especially with some very key players missing - if they indeed remain missing.


South Africa Rugby World Cup Odds


South Africa are currently priced as third favourites at 5.50 to retain their title with Easybet.

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