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The Springbok selection conundrum

Last updated: 22 Jul 2023
Ralph Staniforth 22 Jul 2023
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  • South Africa play Argentina in the Rugby Championship on 29 August
  • The World Cup begins on 8 September 2023
  • Can the Springboks defend their world title?
Springboks rugby
Springboks face a selection conundrum if players don't stay fit (Getty images)

South Africa went into the 2019 Rugby World Cup as underdogs but came out on top by beating England 32-12 in the final in Tokyo. It surprised many considering the turnaround Rassie Erasmus had made with the side when he took over the reigns as coach 18 months prior to the tournament.
  • Springbok Selection
  • Siya Kolisi
  • Handre Pollard
  • Rugby World Cup
  • South Africa Fixtures before Rugby World Cup

Going into the World Cup in 2019 the Springboks weren’t quite written off, but they were not favoured either. Much the same can be said about 2023 despite them being defending champions.

There are numerous reasons for that, none less so than the emergence of France and Ireland as the top two nations in the world. And they both deserve that considering they’ve both beaten the other superpowers in the four-year break between tournaments.

Other reasons will include the inconsistency of the Springboks since their triumph in Tokyo almost four years ago. COVID-19 played a major role as South Africa went through 2020 without playing a single game of international competition.

In 2021, in their first games back, they faced the British & Irish Lions. They won that series 2-1, showing their quality in abundance, but mostly did it in the same way they’d won the World Cup two years prior.

There was much talk about the lack of change from the World Cup in terms of the game plan. However, the B+I Lions tour is the biggest tour a country can have, with many placing it just below the World Cup in terms of importance.

So, it was a win-at-all-cost situation for South Africa, and rightly so. They did not evolve their game plan, but they never really had the opportunity to do so with no rugby the year prior.

After the World Cup, assistant coach, Jacques Nienaber took over from Rassie Erasmus as head coach, while the former Springbok has remained in the fold as Director of SA Rugby.

Nienaber continuously said that the Springboks were a year behind everyone else having not played in 2020. The plan was always to evolve, and that was seen in 2022. 

During the 2022 Rugby Championship, the Springboks played with a bit more freedom, although still largely stuck to their structures. But it was on the end-of-year tour that real change was seen. 

Despite narrow defeats to France and Ireland, the Springboks showed their willingness to play a bit wider and with some freedom. That trend continued in the first two games of the Rugby Championship, although things went poorly against the All Blacks in Auckland.

Springbok Selection

While the game plan has certainly evolved, South Africa are still very dependent on achieving dominance in the set piece and dominating the breakdown from a physical aspect.

Much of the squad from 2019 has remained, but there is a sense of loyalty to some players who perhaps have not performed as well as they should have.

Going into the World Cup two key players will have minimal minutes, and that should be a real concern. 

Siya Kolisi

Captain Siya Kolisi is in a race against time to get fit for the World Cup, and while many will point out that the inspirational figure had the same predicament ahead of the 2019 World Cup, we would do well to remember that he is now four years older.

Regardless, Kolisi is a huge player for the Boks, not only in the work he does but how he captains.

Handre Pollard

The other conundrum is Handre Pollard. The flyhalf was excellent for the Leicester Tigers but got injured towards the end of the season. Nienaber was quick to point out that Pollard is being given the Rugby Championship off as a precaution rather than anything serious.

While that is a clever move, the flyhalf may take a few games to get back up to speed at the World Cup. But that isn’t the biggest concern - the real worry is if Pollard gets injured again, in training, in a warm-up game, early in the World Cup.

Erasmus and Nienaber have done superb work in creating depth across almost all positions, but flyhalf remains a major concern. 

Elton Jantjies fell out of favour after some disciplinary issues last year which meant, when Pollard was injured for the end-of-year tour, utility back, Damian Willemse took over the flyhalf role.

Willemse is a superb rugby player, but his best positions are clearly inside centre and fullback. He did a job on tour but was shown up against the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship. Can he really be trusted in that role in a knockout game at the World Cup?

The other option is Stormers stalwart, Manie Libbok. Libbok has been superb in the last two years of the United Rugby Championship and most certainly is the best 10 playing in South Africa.

However, Libbok had his first start in the green and gold against Australia in the 2023 Rugby Championship. He is also very different from Pollard, and while Libbok provides excitement with his ability to run the ball and put others into space, there is concern around his ability to control the game with his boot - something that is required at international level.

Rugby World Cup

There are other issues within the Springbok camp with some younger players putting their hands up. But will the coaches be willing to trust them ahead of the more experienced heads who won the World Cup last year?

Getting the balance right will be key for Jacques Nienaber. He has a very tough pool to negotiate at the World Cup, and then, if they manage to get through that, will face either France or New Zealand in the quarter-final.

It will be a tough road to the final, but the Springboks have everything they need to progress. They will have to be consistent though, and perhaps most importantly, keep key figures fit…and maybe trust some of the younger players at key moments.

South Africa Fixtures before Rugby World Cup

29 July - South Africa vs Argentina (Rugby Championship)
6 August - Argentina vs South Africa (RWC Warm-up)
19 August - Wales vs South Africa (RWC Warm-up)
25 Augst - New Zealand vs South Africa (RWC Warm-up)

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