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The Springboks are not just 'huge mutants'

By Daniel Gallan
RG Snyman of South Africa looks on during the Summer International match between Wales and South Africa at Principality Stadium on August 19, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

“Huge mutants”. Those are the words used by the 1.91 m tall, 108 kg Alix Popham to describe South African rugby players.

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The former Welsh loose forward, who played in the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, was speaking to the Daily Express newspaper about the very serious matter of brain trauma in the sport.

Let’s unpack Popham’s words at face value. Every rugby podcast, think-piece or yarns around pints in the build-up to the World Cup has rightly given airtime to the Springboks. They’re the defending champions and their demolition of the All Blacks in London grabbed headlines across the rugby ecosystem.

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Most of the chat has focussed on the Boks’ immense power up front. Of course it has. Scrums, mauls, ferocity in the tackle, aggression at the ruck and meaty ball carries have been a trademark of South African rugby since the oval ball was first punted in Cape Town in 1862.

But a closer examination of those brutes up front, and the smaller hot-steppers behind them, reveal another trend that should be the focus for any supporter of a rival team.

Franco Mostert will start in the second row against Scotland on Sunday but made his Test debut on the flank back in 2016. He has the nous and engine to operate as a loose forward at the highest level and could probably do a shift at No. 8.

Springboks mutants
Franco Mostert (Photos / Patrick Hamilton / www.photosport.nz)
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Pieter-Steph du Toit, that human torpedo who consumes fly-halves as if unsuspecting pivots were his only sustenance, began his professional career as a lock. Now he’s one of the most accomplished blindside flankers of his generation.

Versatility was not always a strength of the Springboks but they’re currently littered with Swiss-Army Knives that can simultaneously cut with surgical precision and demolish with the force of a sledgehammer.

Malcom Marx wears 2 on his back but jackals as well as any back-rower. Cobus Reinach is a scrum-half by trade but can keep pace with the majority of wingers on the planet. Damian Willemse is comfortable in every position in the back-line. Willie le Roux stands at first receiver so often he might as well call himself a fly-half, a position that Cheslin Kolbe has occupied for Toulouse.

Kwagga Smith, one of Popham’s “mutants”, who stands at 1.8 m and barely tips the scale above 90 kg, has more than 150 caps for the South Africa national sevens team. That hasn’t stopped him from being an integral cog in the Springboks’ pack. Is he a loose forward? Is he a utility back? Does it even matter?

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Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus deserve immense praise for creating a team that has so many movable parts. Even the newbie Canan Moodie, who will miss out against Scotland with a slightly stiff hamstring, can occupy four positions. Buffalos have been taught to tap dance. Lions are now pushing down trees. Analysts and arm-chair critics are welcome to form opinions based solely on what they can see, but that only tells half the story of this group of chimeras.

Versatility will be a key weapon as the Springboks look to defend their crown. It will also serve as part of their own sense of mission as this World Cup campaign will be fuelled by a different desire than their title tilt four years ago.

Back in 2019, the mantra was one of hope and inspiration. South Africa was in a dark place socially and politically. The year before the corrupt and incompetent Jacob Zuma resigned as president of a country that could barely provide basic services for its citizens.

Two weeks before the World Cup in Japan, thousands of women took to the streets to protest their government’s failure to deal with unchecked gender based violence after a string of brutal attacks. The country was unsafe for foreigners who feared for their life after a slew of xenophobic riots. The economy was tanking. Many saw emigration as their only viable option.

The nation was desperate for something to cheer for and the Springboks delivered. A post-triumph documentary brought us to tears. Stories of hardship ended in celebration.

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Now something else is compelling this team on. Yes, the country is still in a state of near ruin. Perhaps things have even deteriorated since 2019. But that is not what’s turning the wheels. At least, not exclusively.

The Springboks are chasing immortality. If they win this World Cup they will equal the great All Blacks under Richie McCaw. We can quibble over which team was filled with better players, but back-to-back World Cups alongside a British & Irish Lions series win would place Kolisi’s charges joint-top of the podium.

Facts beat feelings, as some smart-arses on social media like to point out. And the facts would unequivocally state that under Erasmus and Nienaber, the Springboks created one of the greatest dynasties in rugby history.

First, they have to win the thing. Victories over Scotland and Ireland are far from guaranteed and a quarterfinal against either France or New Zealand might as well be decided by a coin-flip. Then a tricky semi-final against a team buoyed by an easier run to the last four before a decider in Paris.

There has never been a tougher gauntlet to the Webb Ellis Cup. Injuries will take their toll. Players will need to slot into uncomfortable positions on the field as new combinations are tested in the furnace of a knock-out game.

Luckily for the Springboks, versatility is a newfound strength.

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5 Comments
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Ben Smith is a Dick 317 days ago

What does it matter who's bigger, what matters is who can catch a ball better, who can kick a ball better, who can carry a ball forward better, who can goose step whilst holding a ball better, who can see the space better etc etc doesn't matter if you are a massive giant! That's the beauty of rugby, everyone can play!

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Chris 318 days ago

Yes but they have a certain brutishness all of their own
The poms are uglier

D
Drew 318 days ago

We aren't that huge either. There are other teams that are far bigger. The All Blacks are taller by far on average than the Boks. Their backs are heavier by far and their forwards are on average heavier and taller, so all this nonsense about South Africa being huge lumbering animals, is just kind-of pathetic. If it suits you to think the Boks are massive gorillas, by all means, knock yourselves out, but you're just intimidating yourself for no good reason.

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Tim 1 hours ago
'It’s a mental thing': Joe Schmidt on the Wallabies' flyhalf issues

Ben Donaldson had not played Super Rugby for the past eight weeks. Surely, he was playing Shute Shield for Randwick in that time to keep up the fitness…?? Eight weeks is a long break to be thrust in against a hungry skillful side like Georgia who deserve to be in the “7 Nations”. (Italy, Wales & Scotland v Georgia, can’t wait to see those ones). In the second test against Wales, Donaldson was put on for nine minutes. That was a mistake from the coaching team, who already knew he was starting the following week against Georgia. They should have put him on for 20-25 minutes, with Nick Whyte at halfback, and their combination from the Force would have flowed. Donaldsons first 20 minutes against Georgia was a shocker. However, well done to Joe Schmidt for keeping him out there because Donaldsons game improved as the rust came off, he was hammered a few times and handled it and he came into his groove. He made mistakes which they will all learn from. Ben Donaldson is a naturally talented rugby player who the Wallabies have to stick with at no.10. “Over the black Dot-aldson” is a good nick name for him with his awesome goal kicking style. It looks as though, off the boot, it’s going to hit the post. Then it just curves in beautifully every time, once he is in the groove. Donaldsons play this season for the Force, with Kurtley and co., was amazing to watch. Kurtley making one of the best comebacks in history. Donaldson has to be played consistently with Flash Gordon, Big LEN, McReight, Tupou, Kellaway. Oh, that’s right, there is Bell, Kerevi, Petaia (This list does go on a bit). Donaldson will be slotting these weapons into gaps, and into the clear, before we know it… One more thing which I will just assume is happening, just include JOC in the Wallabies squad. He is a rugby genius. His skills, wisdom and experience would be infectious around the Wallabies relatively inexperienced backline. JOC has mastered the art of all the positions long ago. JOC is so skilled and match fit atm taking THE REDS, at no.10, within a point of beating Wales. He can come off the bench and slot into the backline for the Wallabies at 10, 12, 13 or 15 at any stage of a test match. Ummm yeah, not bad… I am assuming that BIG JOE, Laurie “Gandalf” Fischer, Mike “The scrum Doctor” Cron and the team obviously already know all this. I am just a passionate rugby union supporter, and I am very happy that these guys are in charge of the coaching duties, what a coaching team the Wallabies have been blessed with. (Good luck with selecting the match day 23 when Will Skelton, who was playing amazing rugby for La Rochelle, and the boys return from Europe/Japan, Samu Kerevi…???) Now just imagine having Bernie Larkham, Toutai Kefu, Nathan Grey and John “Nobody” Eales as your coaching apprentices… GO AUSTRALIAN RUGBY… Doing a great job Phil Waugh, Joe Roff, Dan Herbert and the team. An amazing three years ahead. GO THE WALLABIES… GO THE WALLAROOS… GO THE 7’s in Paris…

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