After a couple of tough years following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, South African rugby seems to have righted itself at the top level, with Springbok depth once again beginning to show through.
Few people who witnessed it will ever forget the Springboks’ now infamous 34-32 loss to Japan to Brighton in 2015, and although South Africa rallied and ultimately finished 3rd in the tournament, it paved the way for some testing seasons in the Republic.
In 2016, the Boks scraped a home series against Ireland, before heavy defeats to New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, as well as being whitewashed on their European tour by England, Italy and Wales. They lost seven of the 12 games they played that year.
Losses were down in 2017 as the Boks drew home and away games with Australia, although they were still restricted to just six wins and a 50% win rate. Given that three of those six wins came at home against a France side in self-destruct mode, it was far from the record that South African fans, who are used to their team winning more than they lose, were not too keen on.
Despite still only managing a 50% win record the following year, 2018 proved to be the beginning of the turning tide. The Springboks beat England 2-1 in their home series, they edged out the All Blacks in Wellington in a memorable encounter and they were able to pick up some wins in Europe, seeing off both France and Scotland.
No one expected miracles when Rassie Erasmus was lured away from Munster in 2017, but results, as well as the performance on Saturday against Australia, have shown that there is a positive trajectory for the Boks ahead of the Rugby World Cup in Japan later this year.
In a shortened format this year due to said Rugby World Cup, the Rugby Championship has done away with its two-legged fixture format and each team will play their opponents only once this season. Thanks to the short turnarounds and extensive travel requirements in the competition, Erasmus opted to keep plenty of his powder dry against the Wallabies at Ellis Park.
With a game against the All Blacks in Wellington looming next weekend, Erasmus sent 15 members of his squad on ahead to New Zealand to prepare, leaving himself with a group of players on the cusp of the Springbok starting XV, punctuated with a few key individuals and leaders that were retained to help with continuity.
The Wallabies weren’t at full-strength, either, having suffered through some injuries in the front row, but it was an Australia side much closer to the one we will likely see in crunch games in Japan later this year, than the one South Africa fielded.
Whilst acknowledging Australian profligacy, something which was as much to do with unforced errors as it was South African pressure, the 35-17 win for the Springboks was an encouraging endorsement of their new-found depth.
Up front, Tendai Mtawarira turned back the clock with a fine scrummaging display against Sekope Kepu, whilst Lizo Gqoboka took his debut opportunity well, with Steven Kitshoff set to offer another potent option in New Zealand this coming Saturday. Trevor Nyakane and Vincent Koch dovetailed well at tighthead and the Springboks had the upper hand on Australia at the scrum for the entire 80 minutes.
If there was one concern at the set-piece, it was the early hiccups at the lineout. Bongi Mbonambi grew into the game, though, and the chemistry and timing between him, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager improved and gave South Africa a solid foundation. He won’t be displacing Malcolm Marx anytime soon, but Erasmus will be pleased that he has two such contrasting options as Mbonambi and Schalk Brits to call upon as deputies.
Etzebeth had a good game and was another selection that should provide continuity going into the test in Wellington, and between himself, de Jager, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman, the Boks are once again looking at a second row that is a match for any in the world, in terms of both quality and depth.
Pieter-Steph du Toit stole the show in the back row with a masterful performance. The Stormer’s physicality was hard for Australia to contain and his kick-to-score game was also in fine shape, as the 26-year-old continues to evolve into one of the most complete players in international rugby.
Francois Louw and Rynhardt Elstadt had solid games alongside du Toit, although if there was one thing the Springbok back row was missing, it was a potent carrying option in space, with Siya Kolisi injured and Duane Vermeulen likely to feature in New Zealand.
The return of Marcell Coetzee to international rugby was another reason for Springbok fans to celebrate, as Erasmus’ options in the back row are not only diverse, they are also deep. Kwagga Smith is in the mix, too, with South Africa boasting an array of skills that will allow them, should they want to, to tailor their loose forward selections to specific game plans or opponents.
Debutant Herschel Jantjies dazzled on his international bow at scrum-half, as Faf de Klerk was sent ahead to New Zealand, whilst Cobus Reinach put in a try-scoring cameo of his own. After being down to the bare bones in recent years, the performances of Jantjies and Reinach will have been pleasing for Erasmus, with the Springboks having looked particularly reliant on de Klerk of late.
Elton Jantjies had his moments in the 10 jersey, although there were also mistakes and rust, just as you would expect from a player in their first international game of the season. Taking risks is in his style of play and that’s a large part of what makes him such a special attacking player, as well as offering a different kind of threat on the pitch to incumbent Handré Pollard. Frustrations and moments you would like back come with that, unfortunately.
For all the lauding of South Africa’s growing depth, though, the stocks at fly-half are not in the rudest of health.
Pollard and E Jantjies offer a nice, contrasting one-two punch, but should one of them go down, the options are limited. Damian Willemse and Curwin Bosch are inexperienced at this level and have been bumped back and forth at full-back at Super Rugby level, whilst François Steyn is a valuable and versatile back, but not one who necessarily screams ‘starting fly-half.’
Steyn did, however, show the value of a utility back from the bench, covering fly-half, centre and full-back. Jesse Kriel went well at outside centre in the starting XV and although André Esterhuizen will have better games, the duo of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am went unutilised and offer plenty of ability.
There was a similar story in the back three, where Cheslin Kolbe and Willie le Roux were held back for the upcoming test with New Zealand. Warrick Gelant was effective defensively, despite having a few moments in possession he’d prefer went differently, whilst Sbu Nkosi put down a marker as to why he should be in the mix for the Springboks’ starting XV when everyone is available.
As performances go overall, it was a solid first outing for South Africa, although they will know that they are capable of playing much better and that the final scoreline arguably flattered them somewhat.
The winner on Saturday in Johannesburg, though, was Erasmus’ 31-man Rugby World Cup squad, rather than his starting XV. No one wins a Rugby World Cup with 15 players, they win it with a squad that can rotate and survive injuries, with minimal drops in quality and an ability to maintain consistency in playing style.
The likes of H Jantjies, Reinach, Coetzee, Nkosi, Steyn and Brits may not have battered down Erasmus’ door for a place in his starting XV on Saturday, but they took important steps towards establishing – or re-establishing – themselves as reliable depth options and competition within the squad.
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