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FEATURE Have seasoned Springboks struck the right balance?

Have seasoned Springboks struck the right balance?
1 month ago

In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 World Cup final, Rassie Erasmus spoke about what was next for his Springbok team. The South African director of rugby wanted the Boks to win more consistently between World Cups, to win more Rugby Championship titles, and to defend their world title at the subsequent tournament in France.

Erasmus name-checked the great All Blacks side of 2015, and suggested that in time, the Boks might build a dynasty and be mentioned in the same breath.

Four years down the line, and it’s fair to say that the Boks have failed to realise most of their goals. While they tamed the British & Irish Lions in a fiercely contested series in 2021, they finished third, second, and second across three Rugby Championship campaigns during this period. As for overall consistency, they won 63% of their Tests, and dropped down to fourth place in the World Rugby rankings.

All that said, the overriding ambition to win the 2023 World Cup – and to become just the second team in history to defend that title – may well be clinched in the coming months. For all the team’s inconsistencies, Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber have developed a vastly experienced and versatile squad.

Even without world-class players such as Handré Pollard, Lukhanyo Am and Lood de Jager – who have been omitted from the 33-man World Cup squad due to injuries – the Boks appear well placed to cope with the unique demands of this competition. History shows intensity, experience, and squad depth are prerequisites for success in a tournament which spans seven gruelling weeks.

Questions have been asked – and will continue to be asked – about the balance of their squad. Two years ago, Eddie Jones criticised the age-profile of the South African contingent, and suggested that they may be too old and past it to make an impact in France.

Handre Pollard
The injury-enforced absence of Handre Pollard is a big blow to South Africa. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

That balance has been a point of concern in South African rugby circles for more than a decade. Back in 2011, the squad was stacked with veterans who had won multiple Tri-Nations titles, a Lions series, and the 2007 World Cup. Despite all that experience and IP, the group lacked the edge which had made them so successful four years previously.

Erasmus, who was serving as the team’s technical advisor back then, made the observation. He noted how six or seven of the older players did not participate in all the training sessions, and how this impacted on the cohesion of the collective. That squad didn’t boast much quality or experience in depth, and was largely reliant on a clutch of ageing stars to perform.

Since rejoining the Bok management team in 2018, Erasmus and Nienaber have insisted all players – regardless of their status or experience – train on a Monday if they want to be considered for a Test on the weekend.

This policy has been retained in the years following South Africa’s successful 2019 World Cup campaign, will be adhered to in the coming tournament in France. The expectation is that older as well as younger players prove themselves in training, and earn the right to be selected for the big matches, such as the World Cup pool games against Scotland and Ireland this September. As was the case in 2019, there will be no room for complacency.

Nevertheless, it’s worth unpacking the number of caps in the current squad, as well as the ages, and noting how they compare to those of 2011, and in some cases, to the all-conquering New Zealand contingent of 2015.

SA 2023 (33 players)SA 2019 (31)NZ 2015 (31)NZ 2011 (30)SA 2011 (30)SA 2007 (30)
AVERAGE CAPS403348424128
TOTAL CAPS13231030148411331224826

Pollard, Am and De Jager – three World Cup-winners with a combined 166 Test caps – will be missed. Yet even without that trio in tow, the Boks will travel to France with the most experienced World Cup group in South African rugby history, as the 33 players selected boast a combined 1323 caps. That’s nearly 300 more than the 2019 squad, and nearly 100 more than the 2011 group – which was deemed long in the tooth.

The All Blacks invested heavily in experienced players across the 2011 and 2015 campaigns. The latter squad had more combined caps (1484) than any of the groups listed above.

The current Bok side warrants comparison to the All Blacks class of 2015 in several departments. Nienaber’s team features 13 players with 50 caps or more, whereas Steve Hansen’s side had 10 veterans in this grouping.

The All Blacks retained 14 of the 33 players used at the 2011 World Cup for the 2015 campaign in England. Legends such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were nearing the end of their careers, and yet there never seemed to be a doubt they were fit for purpose.

SA 2023NZ 2015SA 2011

In the same vein, Erasmus and Nienaber have retained 21 of the 33 players who did duty in Japan for the upcoming mission to France. Clearly they feel that these players have the physical ability, as well as the experience, to make a telling contribution at this tournament.

The age profiles of the respective squads make for interesting reading, too.

Of the teams which have attempted to win back-to-back titles, the current Bok side is the oldest, at least in terms of average age (30). The All Blacks took a lot of elder luminaries to England in 2015, but the average age was 28 across the 31-man squad – a stat which points to the balance between experience and youth.

Hansen wasn’t afraid to back his veterans in the most physically demanding matches of the 2015 World Cup. Eleven players older than 30 were included in the squad of 31, with Keven Mealamu (36), Ben Franks (31), Jerome Kaino (32), McCaw (34), Carter (33), Nonu (33) and Conrad Smith (33) all playing in the final.

At the other end of the spectrum, younger players such as Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett and Nehe Milner-Skudder (all 24), as well as Sam Cane (23), were backed to make an impact in the decider against Australia.

SA 2023 (33)SA 2019 (31)NZ 2015 (31)NZ 2011 (30)SA 2011 (30)SA 2007 (30)
AVERAGE AGE302828282827

Have the 2023 Boks got this balance right? As the breakdown above confirms, as many as 18 of the 33 players in the current squad are 30 or older, whereas only two players (Canan Moodie and Jaden Hendrikse) fall into the young gun grouping.

The Boks do have 13 players between 25 and 29 – many of whom possess extensive experience and are in their rugby-playing prime. South Africa had even more players (20) in that category back in 2019, when Erasmus took a relatively young and inexperienced side to Japan.

The older All Blacks earned their spots in the 2015 World Cup squad through their performances rather than their reputations. The same could be said of the old men in the current Bok group.

With the rise of Jasper Wiese across the 2021 and 2022 seasons, some doubted whether Duane Vermeulen would make the cut. The 37-year-old number eight fought to regain his place, and after delivering a couple of stellar performances in the recent Rugby Championship, he may well be favoured to start when the Boks face Scotland and Ireland next month.

Eben Etzebeth (31) has taken his game to another level over the past two seasons, while Willie le Roux (34) has found another gear in the same period. Front-row titans Steven Kitshoff (31) and Frans Malherbe (32) continue to improve with age, and no -one can accuse the hyperactive Faf de Klerk (31) of slowing down. Deon Fourie (36) has been South Africa’s best fetcher in recent seasons, and deserves to travel with the squad.

Faf de Klerk
Faf de Klerk is an effervescent while offering the Springboks an additional goalkicking option. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Erasmus and Nienaber have all the pieces to win another World Cup title. How they assemble this puzzle, of course, will determine whether they realise their ambitious goal.

Ideally, they’d have Pollard, Am and De Jager in tow. But if Pollard and Am don’t make a miraculous return, the Boks should have enough experience and talent to balance the scales.

The All Blacks struck the perfect balance in 2015, and earned the ultimate reward. The way the players were managed during that campaign may well be instructive.

To be fair to Erasmus and Nienaber, they’ve already experienced a failed World Cup campaign (in 2011) as well as a successful one (2019), and have a good idea of what hampers or boosts a squad. Selection and player management will largely determine whether South Africa add to their legacy or finish the four-year cycle on a low note.


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