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Neil de Kock: Damian Willemse selection suggests the Bok plan is progressing

By Neil de Kock
(Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

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We may be a little over a year out from the next World Cup to be staged in France from September but I don’t believe the Springboks missed a trick by failing to refresh their side.

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There are always names that you think can be given a shot but generally what the Springbok coaching staff are doing is affording the incumbents the opportunity to retain their places and prove their long-term worth.

The last time the Springboks played was against England in November so it would be pretty harsh to say to the guys who played then, “Listen guys, five of you are not playing this weekend against Wales.”

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Wales captain Dan Biggar previews the Springboks series
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Wales captain Dan Biggar previews the Springboks series

I like the consistency in terms of selection that the current Springbok management has in place. It was in contrast to when I played for South Africa from 2001 to 2003 where I experienced a period of inconsistency in terms of selection. As I found during my time at Saracens, when teams build consistency with regards to selection, it usually reaps rich rewards somewhere down the line.

Jacques Nienaber – who has selected uncapped forwards Salmaan Moerat and Elrigh Louw on the bench for the first Test against Wales – alluded to not naming more new players in the match day 23 when he said that it’s not an academy and they are not there to develop players.

And if Nienaber believed that the new, young and fresh faces were ready, I think they would have been picked first up. He obviously believes they have to develop a bit more and get more playing time under the belt.

In terms of the Bok backline, Damian Willemse starts at fullback with Willie le Roux shifting to the bench, while Elton Jantjies comes in for Handre Pollard.

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Le Roux has been an outstanding servant to South African rugby and I think the criticism he is dealt at times is quite harsh. He has been solid for us for so long but the truth is that the Springboks need to think about progressing.

Damian is an out-and-out footballer and can play anywhere. He is an incredible athlete, has brilliant skills and boasts a massive boot. He is strong, physical and can step so it’s an opportunity to stake a proper claim for that position.

Beyond Willie, fullback has been a position which has been up in the air and you wouldn’t necessarily say, “That’s our next guy.” It’s someone’s opportunity to stick their hand up and say, “I want that jersey for the next six years.”

I’m still not 100% convinced that fullback is Damian’s best position – he had strong showings for the Stormers during the United Rugby Championship at 12 – and I would like to see him in the midfield but the national coaches know what they are doing.

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In terms of Elton, who has played 42 Tests, contrary to popular opinion I think he has already found a balance to his game. Because he came from a Lions background where they ran everything, everybody thinks that that is still what Elton does. But if you look back at his Tests, he’s been very crafty.

He’s accurate off the boot, puts in kick-passes, gets the ball in-behind and can also clear lines when he needs to. Elton has developed into a very well-rounded N0 10 and can run a game with ball-in-hand but is equally adept mixing it up now and matching the kicking game when he needs to.

In terms of whether someone like Andre Esterthuizen, who was voted RPA Players’ Player of the Year, would be frustrated waiting to get his chance, I would say yes and no.

The team comes first and if it means a 6-2 bench split is going to give you a better chance of getting the result you need then I think every player in the squad will understand that.

The Springboks are definitely not going to hand out caps just to give another backline player an opportunity to get on the field and play a Test because you run the risk of going against your strategy.

The Boks’ current plan is to play a combative game upfront with fresh legs coming on at 50 minutes. It’s team and strategy first before individuals.

Last season, the Springboks’ win-loss record was 7-5 against tier-one nations which equates to 58 per cent. If the men in green and gold look at those numbers, I’m pretty sure that they would be the first ones to admit that they would want to improve.

To have them fifth in the power rankings ahead of the Test season is a bit of a dig at the Springboks and the style we play. I believe the defending world champions deserve a bit more than that.

However, rankings really mean nothing and the team will be focusing on internal growth and laying down a marker starting this Saturday against Wales.

Following an 11-year career with Saracens, which saw him earn 264 caps, Neil de Kock now works in the rugby division at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. De Kock, who featured in 10 Test matches for the Springboks, provides RugbyPass with expert opinion and insight focusing on South Africa.

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