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FEATURE Bok to the future

Bok to the future
4 months ago

Rassie Erasmus took to social media last month to address concerns about his selections for the first Springbok alignment camp – essentially the first training and planning session of the new four-year cycle.

While the selection of 16 uncapped players was lauded, many demanded to know why several established stars – such as 37-year-old World Cup-winner Deon Fourie – had been omitted from the 43-man group.

“Guys and ladies, just some info!” the Bok coach wrote on X. “Remember an alignment camp does not mean those are the only players who will play for the Springboks this year! Just like in the past there is a purpose for every camp! Have a lekka weekend!”

Erasmus has to rebuild an ageing squad, as well as develop an alternate team capable of competing when overseas-based players are unavailable.

Erasmus’s post referred to the number of players invited to national training camps since the start of 2018, when he and Jacques Nienaber took the reins.

Over a six-year period, more than 100 players have been exposed to the team culture and systems. While some played exclusively for the Boks, others received opportunities with the South Africa A team. Erasmus and Nienaber managed their resources strategically, with short- and long-term goals in mind.

The first camp will be staged over two days in Cape Town this week. There’s ample reason to believe Erasmus when he says players outside the group will be considered in 2024 and beyond. At the same time, something should be read into the squad announcement.

Apart from embracing a more attacking philosophy in 2024 – the appointment of former All Blacks fly-half Tony Brown as attack coach is a statement in itself – Erasmus has to rebuild an ageing squad, as well as develop an alternate team capable of competing when overseas-based players are unavailable.

This table is based on selections made between 2018 and 2023

None of the Boks based in Europe and Japan were considered for this camp – bar four injured players currently completing their rehabilitation programmes in South Africa. Apart from recently retired Duane Vermeulen, 34 of the 35 men involved at the World Cup will be available in 2024.

Most of these stalwarts should be deployed in the two-game series against Ireland in July, as well as in the subsequent Rugby Championship. The Boks haven’t beaten Ireland since 2016, and would dearly love to set that record straight. Beyond that, Erasmus’s charges will be gunning for a first Rugby Championship title since 2019, and a first Freedom Cup series win over the All Blacks since 2009.

The respective series and tournaments will be massive in isolation. But as was the case in 2018 and 2020 – the ‘rebuilding years’ – Erasmus will have a much bigger goal in mind, namely winning the 2027 World Cup.

He is likely to persist with some but not all of the veterans who earned back-to-back titles. The coaches will attempt to blood the next generation without upsetting the balance of the collective.

If Erasmus persists with the same group four years from now, 42% of the squad will be older than 35. History shows the odd 37-year-old can add value – Vermeulen, Fourie and Schalk Brits come to mind – but no coach is going to include as many as 15 ageing warriors in a 33-man squad.

Who will make the cut for Australia? It’s a question linked to the form and determination of the grizzled old timers, the level of depth and experience in specific positions, as well as the performances of the up-and-coming stars.

In some cases, these plans have been in place for several years. RG Snyman and Damian Willemse were blooded during Erasmus’ first season in charge, and have grown as the years have progressed.

Willemse started the 2023 World Cup final at full-back, and should play a senior role once more in 2027. Snyman should take on more responsibility, now second-row giants such as Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Lood de Jager – a late withdrawal from the 2023 squad – are getting on in years.

Since 2021, Ox Nche, Jasper Wiese, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jaden Hendrikse, Canan Moodie and Grant Williams have forced their way into the matchday squad. Don’t be surprised if most if not all of these players are part of the senior group in 2027.

Consider those who failed to make the cut for 2023. Salmaan Moerat and Ruan Nortje – who both made their debuts in 2022 – will further bolster the second-row stocks, while Stormers Ruben van Heerden could get his chance further down the line.

RG Snyman
RG Snyman was capped by Erasmus early in his tenure and became a key member of the side which won back-to-back World Cups (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw – two of the best-performing loose forwards in the United Rugby Championship – may feel their time has come with Vermeulen retired.

But the South African back-row conveyer belt continues to churn out talented players, and the young Bulls duo of Cameron Hanekom and Mpilo Gumede – both of whom have been invited to the alignment camp – are forcing national selectors to reassess the pecking order. Lions flanker Ruan Venter is yet another who has earned an alignment camp invite on the back of several influential performances.

Bongi Mbonambi and Malcom Marx have been outstanding servants for South African rugby, and their experience will be key when the Boks tackle Ireland and New Zealand later this year. Outside of this pair, the Boks lack experienced options at hooker. Fourie could well receive a recall, but he is not a realistic option for the 2027 World Cup.

Stormer Andre-Hugo Venter (22) appears primed for that third hooker role, although it’s revealing the Bulls pair of Johan Grobbelaar and Jan-Hendrik Wessels have also been selected.

Few outside South Africa may have heard of Marnus van der Merwe, but the hard-working Cheetahs hooker has impressed the selectors. As many as six hookers are in the mix, and it’s clear building depth in this position is one of Erasmus’s priorities.

Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu has shone for the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The Bok scrum set the platform for World Cup glory and while aspects of the South African approach will change, an emphasis on the set-piece will remain – and the selection of the front-row will be crucial.

Wilco Louw has been on the fringes of national selection for some time, even though he has delivered gargantuan all-round showings for Harlequins and the Bulls. Gerhard Steenekamp made his Test debut on the eve of the 2023 World Cup, and may be ready for more responsibility in the near future. Neethling Fouché has been playing behind Frans Malherbe at the Stormers for the past few seasons, but is recognised as one of the best tightheads in South Africa. These players may prop up the Bok scrum in the not-too-distant future.

In backline, Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, who is comfortable at fly-half as well as inside centre, has produced a series of sparkling performances for the Stormers in recent weeks, as has the equally promising Suleiman Hartzenberg, a utility player in the mould of Canan Moodie and Jesse Kriel. Erasmus tends to favour versatile backs, occasionally from a bench which includes six or even seven forwards.

That is why the selection of Sanele Nohamba is most intriguing, as he’s already worn number nine and 10 for the Lions and slotted match-winning goals.

The decision to include Jordan Hendrikse – Jaden’s younger brother – is equally interesting. Nohamba has started ahead of Hendrikse at 10 this season, but the roles may be reversed when the Boks face Wales at Twickenham on 22nd June.

As well as missing their England and France-based players for this out-of-window match, the date clashes with the URC final. South African sides will have designs on the trophy and that may rule out top local talent. Erasmus will have to rely on a younger contingent to get the job done – and he will have the chance to see which of these players demand greater investment.

The build-up to 2027 has already begun. The Boks will prioritise results in the series against Ireland and Rugby Championship, while working towards an unprecedented World Cup three-peat.

Buckle up, because the next instalment of this Bok saga is likely to yield far more than bomb squads and box kicks.

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Comments

15 Comments
W
Wayneo 142 days ago

People outside of SA have no clue about the rugby renaissance / revolution that is happening at grass roots level in SA ever since Rassie was appointed.

Coaching standards have dramatically improved across the board and the quality of rugby we are seeing on the school and university grounds is at times unbelievably good.

The standard of play in the Varsity Cup competition is comparable to URC level and as a competition it is just an incredibly good entertainment event. This all contributes to why we are seeing 20k -30k and higher crowd numbers at these games.

Elsewhere in the world, professional teams with multi-million dollar budgets struggle to get 5k - 10k attendance at their games whereas our top 100 schools easily get more than 10k every weekend.

In just 1 week, the Bulls sold out two events they are hosting this year, the URC game against the Stormers, as well as the Test match against Ireland that sold out in just a few hours yesterday.

I cannot wait to see our youngsters in action later this year int he U20 RWC being held in Cape Town. There are some players there that are already playing in the URC that I am excited to see in action wearing the Green & Gold 💚💛!

R
Reuben 142 days ago

The boks will not win 2027. End of story.

Not worthy 2023 champions.

LuckBoks.

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