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Sorry Wales, but don't expect Springboks 'Lite' this July

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa's Eben Etzebeth during the South Africa team run ahead of an Autums Nations Series match against Scotland, at the Peffermill Playing Fields, on November 12, 2021, in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ross Parker/SNS Group via Getty Images)

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By most accounts, the upcoming series between South Africa and Wales has already been decided. It’s the top ranked team in the world versus a struggling outfit languishing in ninth according to World Rugby’s metrics. It’s the world champions and British and Irish Lions victors hosting a squad that lost to Italy at home for the first time only three months ago. Depending on who you ask, anything less than a 20 point deficit in favour of the Springboks in each of the three matches would constitute a successful trip for Wales.

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Of course on field results don’t always meet our expectations but it’s hard to envisage an upset. The hipsters and stats-savants might orchestrate a narrative that places the groups closer together, that proves that Wales are irresistible in months that begin on a Friday and that the Springboks have never beaten Wales in July (that one is actually true). But these are tentative hopes at best. If you’re the betting sort, this one looks to be a sure thing.

That in itself poses questions, and a unique set of pressures, for South Africa’s coach Jacques Nienaber. With 15 months between now and the World Cup title defence, what exactly is the purpose for this series? Will the Springboks be programmed to win at all costs? Are the scores of any relevance? And what is his mandate with regards to blooding youngsters?

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“When you represent your country or the Springboks, there are a couple of things you have to keep in mind,” Nienaber said this week. “You are representing your country, you’re representing a brand that has been there for years, for hundreds of years. I don’t think that is necessarily the platform to develop.

“The key is always, when you represent your country, when you represent the Springboks, you want to win. That is why we play for the Springboks, to make the country proud.”

Nienaber’s predecessor as head coach, Rassie Erasmus, built his coaching philosophy on a mantra that aimed to “let the main thing stay the main thing”. In other words, the feel-good energy that followed in the wake of the Springboks’ triumph in 2019, and the overwhelming sense of hope and inspiration that is now synonymous with captain Siya Kolisi and try-machine Makazole Mapimpi, is all immaterial if the team does not win rugby matches. The ‘main thing’ is winning. Everything else is secondary.

This series against Wales will likely feature a match-day 23 encompassing familiar faces. According to statistician Russ Petty, no other team yet to announce their mid-year squads has undergone less change since the 2019 World Cup with 26 of the current Springboks possessing a winner’s medal they collected in Yokohama. Argentina are the next most-consistent in this regard, having selected 19 World Cup veterans from three years ago while New Zealand and Wales have recalled 17 and 16 players respectively.

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That consistency is underlined with an even bolder pen when contrasting this latest collection with the 46-man squad assembled before the Lions series last year. 31 players who beat the best of the Britain and Ireland will square up against Wales. That would be 33 but for injuries to Frans Steyn and Duane Vermeulen which equates to a player retention of 71 per cent from the last major series.

When scrutinising the probable match-day 23 for the first Test in Pretoria, and comparing it to the one that clinched the Lions series in Cape Town, a similar pattern emerges. The same two sets of world class front rows are there. Marco van Staden is the only fit forward omitted from Nienaber’s list. Cobus Reinach’s injury hasn’t halted his inclusion while Morne Steyn is the only noticeable absentee in the backline.

This does not bode well for those on the fringe and perhaps explains why eight of the 12 additions have yet to play for the Springboks. Marcel Coetzee is the most-capped newbie with 30 Tests and was a shoe-in for selection after steering the Bulls to the URC final. The same is true for Andre Esterhuizen who powered Harlequins to the Premiership semi-finals. Both players will exert pressure on the incumbents ahead of them. The eight debutants-in-waiting have been drafted with an eye on the future.

“That is why we do have a squad of 43,” Nienaber said when asked about the likelihood of uncapped players featuring against Wales. “There are ‘SA A’ games lined up for the end of year tour where we can be a little bit creative and start introducing younger guys. We obviously have a nice plan out for the whole year where we can start introducing some younger guys and introduce them to top high performance environments. But that would be dependent on our results and that would be dependent on injuries.

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“Our plan might be to play a player in the SA A game on the end of year tour but if we pick up a few injuries he may be starting a Test as soon as the first test match against Wales. Yes, we do have a plan for 2022, but that plan changes quickly based on results and injuries.”

There are some positions, though, that are more open than others. The pack looks settled and it is inconceivable that Nienaber would want to tinker with that too much. However, fly-half and fullback may need a brief examination.

Elton Jantjies, understudy to the banker Handre Pollard, is a doubt after he was arrested following an incident on a flight from Dubai to Johannesburg last month. He faces charges of malicious damage to property and will appear in a magistrate’s court on 17 June. Johan Goosen is a ready-made replacement once he returns to fitness – likely in time for the Autumn internationals – and Damien Willemse is a capable pivot, but is better suited at 15.

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Steyn’s injury is a concern. So is his age. He turned 35 in May and has been playing elite rugby since 2006. He’s shown he’s still capable of turning games at the elite level but Nienaber will be tempted to further test Damien Willemse’s credentials as his primary utility back. He may even be tempted to start him at fullback, just as he did against Wales in Cardiff last November.

Whoever is selected will be expected to beat Wayne Pivac’s team and do so comfortably. It would be remarkable if they didn’t.

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