United Rugby Championship the key to Springbok development puzzle in 2022
Nienaber and Erasmus will not have overseas stars for finale against England.
Rassie Erasmus returned to work this past week after serving a 60-day ban for criticising referees in the 2021 series between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions.
Although Erasmus remains banned from travelling to Test matches until 30 September, he is free to resume his duties as director of rugby and to assist national coach Jacques Nienaber with plans for a 2022 season that will lay the platform for the 2023 World Cup campaign.
Since Erasmus and Nienaber returned to South Africa in 2018, they have made it clear that this Bok side has three priorities: results, transformation and squad development.
Though results and the rate of transformation will remain important measurements of progress in 2022, development with a view to the final Test of the season against England – and subsequently the 2023 World Cup tournament in France – will be paramount.
Champs still have something to prove
2021 was a landmark year for South African rugby. Nienaber’s team became the first southern hemisphere side to win a series against the Lions since 2009. They followed up a rare away win against the All Blacks with a drought-ending victory against Wales in Cardiff. They finished the season as the No 1-ranked team in the world.
That’s not to say that the Boks didn’t fail or experience their fair share of disappointments. They struggled to find their mojo in the Rugby Championship until the very last fixture against New Zealand. They ended the season on a low note when they went down to England.
Fast forward to the present, and some of the coaches and players are still hurting after that 27-26 defeat at Twickenham. It’s fair to say that the two losses to Australia, the defeat to New Zealand in Townsville, and that near-miss against England leaves an otherwise accomplished group with something to prove in 2022.
Barring injury setbacks, all of the top players should be available for the three-Test series against Wales in July, the Rugby Championship, and the first three games of the four-match tour to Europe in November.
The season finale against England on 26 November will fall outside of the international window, however, and the overseas-based Boks will in all likelihood return to their clubs in Europe and Japan. For this reason, the Boks will field a side largely, if not exclusively, composed of South Africa-based players.
The wealth of SA talent abroad
More than 500 South Africans are playing professional rugby abroad. North of 200 are competing in the top leagues of Europe and Japan. There are enough overseas-based South Africans with international experience in those tournaments to fill three Springbok XVs.
Since Erasmus and Nienaber joined the Bok set-up in 2018, they have worked SA Rugby’s revised eligibility policy to stack the national team with overseas-based stars. As many as 17 of 32 players who toured the UK in November 2021 were based at overseas clubs. That number would have been higher if Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks, England), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Toyota Verblitz, Japan) and Cheslin Kolbe (Toulon, France) weren’t ruled out because of injuries.
At least seven overseas-based players featured in the Bok starting XV across those three Tests. Nine players who ply their trade abroad – as well as Trevor Nyakane, who has since transferred from the Bulls to French club Racing 92 – started against England at Twickenham, and a further five were on the bench.
Consider what a Bok team without those 15 players might look like. In some positions – such as lock, blindside flank, No 8 and flyhalf – both the first- and second-choice options are based at overseas clubs. The team that confronts England at Twickenham could feature a number of third-choice options – or worse if there is an injury crisis at some point in the build-up.
Search for front-row answers in the URC
Nienaber will hope that the United Rugby Championship (URC) provides some solutions over the next few months. After a long Covid-enforced break, the four South African franchises resumed their respective campaigns on 22 January.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers will compete against one another over the next four weeks, before progressing to more challenging fixtures against club opponents from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
Nienaber and Erasmus will be monitoring these games closely, searching for players they can prepare and groom for that final fixture against England – and potentially for the 2023 World Cup.
The Boks are particularly thin in positions such as hooker and flyhalf. That lack of depth may be exposed if they don’t find alternatives to their overseas-based stars sooner rather than later.
Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx shared the hooking responsibilities for much of the 2021 season, with rookie Joseph Dweba receiving just one Test cap. Based at the Sharks, Mbonambi will be available for all of the Tests in 2022, while Marx (Kubota Spears, Japan) and Dweba (Bordeaux Bègles, France) will return to their clubs before the clash against England.
The bottom line is that another hooker based in South Africa will be needed for the season finale at Twickenham. Johan Grobbelaar of the Bulls travelled with the Boks’ extended squad during the 2021 Rugby Championship and subsequent tour of the UK. Former Bok hooker Bismarck du Plessis has been outstanding for the Bulls this season and may prove a great short-term solution.
The selections for the England match could reveal Nienaber’s thought process with regard to the World Cup squad. The Boks will travel to France with three hookers in the group, and another will be on standby. Mbonambi and Marx are favourites for the matchday squad, but the identities of the third and fourth choice are yet to be finalised.
New Bok flyhalf loading
Handré Pollard, who is due to transfer from Montpellier to Leicester later this year, will not be available for the game against England. Neither will the Boks’ second-choice flyhalf Elton Jantjies, who currently plays for the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan.
For the first time since Erasmus and Nienaber joined the set-up in 2018, the Boks will be without at least one of their senior playmakers.
Morné Steyn is the only other player who has started at No 10 over the past four years. The veteran was convinced to return to the squad in 2021 after a five-year hiatus, and made a number of significant contributions on and off the field. Indeed, who could forget his series-winning penalty in the third Test against the Lions.
It was hoped that Steyn would continue to feature as the team’s third flyhalf option until the World Cup. The accomplished player looked likely to serve as a mentor to the younger players, just as Schalk Brits did over the course of South Africa’s successful 2019 campaign. Ahead of the 2021 tour to the UK, however, Steyn took a decision to retire and spend more time with his family.
Steyn’s exit has forced the Bok coaches to reconsider Damian Willemse as a bona fide option at No 10. Willemse began his career in that position, but has played a lot of rugby at fullback for the Stormers in recent seasons, and has made all four of his starts for the Boks at No 15. It remains to be seen whether he will receive more game time at flyhalf for club and country in the lead-up to the last Test of the season against England.
The flyhalf position – and more specifically, the dearth of experienced options – has been analysed at length over the past four seasons. With Pollard and Jantjies sitting out in late November, Nienaber will be forced to tackle this question head on. Again, the selection of who starts at No 10 – and who covers from the bench – could be shaped by the desire to develop alternatives to Pollard and Jantjies in the 2023 World Cup squad.
Curwin Bosch looks likely to leave the Sharks for a gig in France, and it remains to be seen if Bulls pivot Johan Goosen, recovering from a serious injury, will be available for the 2022 Test season.
Jordan Hendrikse of the Lions and Kade Wolhuter of the Stormers appear to have skill and temperament in spades, and it will be interesting to see how they bounce back from their respective injury setbacks. Boeta Chamberlain (Sharks) is another young flyhalf who is pushing for higher honours.
Performances in the coming URC matches – particularly against foreign teams away from home – will reveal whether these players are worth backing at Test level. Thereafter, Nienaber will need to ensure that these individuals are brought up to speed for one of the biggest challenges in rugby: a Test at Twickenham in wintery conditions.
Boks seek solid start to season
The extent to which Nienaber focuses on development in 2022 will largely depend on the results of the national team during the early stages of the season.
If the Boks win the first two Tests against Wales in July – and clinch the series – Nienaber will have the freedom to field a more experimental side in the third match.
If the Boks beat Ireland and France in November, Nienaber will give fringe players a chance against Italy thereafter.
A few losses here and there, however, and the coach is likely to revert to his strongest available combination.
Results will have no bearing on the team selected to face England on 26 November, given that it will be staged outside the Test window. It’s for this reason that Nienaber and Erasmus will be on the hunt for local talent over the next few months, and why performances in the URC will be more important than ever. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.