'He's clearly going to be a key part of the South African game plan': What Rassie Erasmus' comments on cohesion mean for the Springboks
The recent announcement of the 46-man Springboks squad to feature against the British & Irish Lions in a three-test series this July was both surprising and largely unsurprising in a variety of different ways.
Much has been made of the fact that the Springboks are yet to play a test match together since their World Cup triumph nearly twenty months ago due predominantly to the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Make no mistake, however, that when that first test kicks off on 24th July in Cape Town, Warren Gatland’s side will by no means be facing a dusty relic of the team that claimed that memorable 2019 World Cup win in Japan.
Having missed out on international rugby in 2020, South Africa’s current squad of players have nonetheless featured prominently for club teams across the globe – from the Top 14 to the Top League and from the Premiership to the recently established PRO14 Rainbow Cup SA. What might on first glance therefore seem to be a mish-mash of internationally-based players, is in fact on further inspection a tightly knit and established group of World Cup winners.
Indeed, of that 31-man World Cup squad, the only absentees in the current squad aside from the injured Warrick Gelant, are three retirees in Tendai Mtawarira, Francois Louw and Schalk Brits. All this is to say, that the current squad have at the very least a proven foundation to build upon.
“They’ve definitely gone with the ‘tried and true’,” commented Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, speaking on this week’s episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod. “They’ve got eight new caps which is always good to see…but it’s a pretty settled, experienced squad.”
Certainly, on the topic of tried and tested, few players seem to fit the bill better than two of the potentially more surprising names chosen by head coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus: 36-year-old Morné Steyn and 34-year-old Frans Steyn. Both are arguably legends of the South African game, the former a serial Super Rugby rugby record holder (second in points scored in the competition to only Dan Carter) as well as a three-time Super Rugby champion and the latter, a double World Cup winner.
Moreover, both Steyns, as Lions fans will remember, featured in the memorable 2009 test series, with Morné in particular playing a major role in breaking the travelling fans’ hearts, in the dying seconds of the second test stepping up to land an ice-cold 50m penalty and take the Springboks to an unassailable two-nil series lead.
On Morné’s selection in 2021, Hall could see clear positives behind the decision. “I think Morné Steyn coming back adds a bit of experience and he’ll add depth to Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies…it’s always good to have him.”
“It’s warranted on form,” Hall added of the ex-Stade Français playmaker Morné, who at the time of writing is top points scorer in the PRO14 Rainbow Cup SA. “I think any time you can get a guy that’s that experienced, it only gives you confidence within your group… Jantjies and Pollard have been there probably the last three, four years, but any time you can bring a guy that’s experienced big moments and give them [Jantjies and Pollard] even just a conversation throughout the week they might need to hear… Having a calibre of player that has a pretty good understanding around big moments and big games and what it takes, I think you can’t buy those kinds of traits.”
A story from Bloemfontein that should spice up the already intriguing Premiership title race https://t.co/YpkUDEBPjB
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 9, 2021
Ex-Blues hooker James Parsons, who captained the Blues to a memorable victory over the Lions on their 2017 New Zealand tour also identified the selection of both Steyns as key to retaining a confident squad in light of retirees from the World Cup-winning group.
“In terms of experience, these older guys … almost become extra coaches in the environment,” said Parsons. “They are so vital to have around in terms of helping out coaches and the group throughout the week, but also in the big moments in test matches. Lions test series are normally tight and it’s about having the ability of these guys to come on, kick long-range penalties, understand pressure moments and have a cool, calm head. They’re both confident guys with the boot, but also confident guys in their game, they know how they play, they’ve got a certain style, everyone around them knows how they play and they’ve done it for so long so everyone’s just confident around them.”
Kicking a winning penalty is an asset seemingly made for the high-pressure environment that Lions tests create. Think New Zealand back in 2017, where the Lions’ second test margin of victory was just three points, or the Australia tour of 2013 where two of the three tests were decided by two points or fewer and of course Morné Steyn’s winning kick back in 2009.
As Hall commented, “You can’t buy experience and you can’t buy guys that have had massive moments and are able to give it to those young players coming through, especially in a Lions series where there’s so much pressure and the margin for error is so small, when you’ve got guys like that who have a good understanding and can help you through that, they’re worth their weight in gold.”
That experience to bring people together might indeed prove priceless given the global flavour to the Springbok’s squad. Nienaber’s selection contains 24 South African-based players, five currently playing in Japan, eight based in France and nine from the UK and Ireland. But as Hall and Parsons reasoned, the bulk of experience is to be found in the pivotal areas.
“I think they’ve got a lot of experience in their loose forward trio and their midfielders,” said Hall. “They’ve got a lot of test caps in that kind of area so it’s pretty strong around those areas and pretty settled…They [Nienaber and Erasmus] have shown a lot of loyalty to a lot of those [World Cup winning] guys but they have got eight new caps as well who have been given an opportunity due to their form … so I think it’s pretty good.”
The likes of Aphelele Fassi, halfback Sanele Nohamba and sevens flyer Rosko Specman will all be relishing a chance to display their talent on such a big stage with the 32-year-old Specman, in particular, hoping to continue the form that saw him near the top of the scoring charts in last year’s brief Super Rugby Unlocked competition.
For Parsons, experience and Springbok success might come crucially from cohesion developed at club level, seen particularly in the selection of five Sale Sharks players who currently sit third in the Premiership table.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 9, 2021
“We had Ben Darwin on the ARP speaking about having that cohesion factor,” commented Parsons, “and it was interesting to hear Erasmus talk about the World Cup cohesion and guys that know each other really well, know the style of play really well.
“He [Erasmus] honed in on Sale Sharks and how there were a couple of players in there that he’s brought in because of the time they’ve spent with Faf de Klerk, how they know how he plays and how they regularly play with him. It just shows that one, he’s clearly going to be a key part of the South African gameplan, and two, that it clearly is a big factor in their squad selection for cohesion and squad connection in terms of being able to come together.
“They haven’t played test rugby for so long so he wants a group that knows each other, knows how to play and knows how to come together quickly and perform at a high level off a short run up.”
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