Has coach Jacques Nienaber built a Springbok squad capable of winning the Rugby World Cup?

Has coach Jacques Nienaber built a  Springbok squad capable of winning the Rugby World Cup?
Jacques Nienaber, head coach of South Africa.(Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Coach Nienaber has bolstered Bok depth, and given 58 players a chance to prove themselves since 2021, but key questions persist

Since taking the Springbok head coach reins from Rassie Erasmus in 2020, Jacques Nienaber has highlighted the group’s three priorities: winning, squad development and transformation.

This season, there’s been a greater shift towards squad development and building a group that can win the 2023 World Cup. While the Boks have recorded a couple of remarkable wins in isolation, they have been inconsistent over a period of nine Tests.

The one constant has been experimentation in selection. Nienaber has attempted to explore new options and combinations while bolstering the depth in most positions. 

Squad rotation for development

Nienaber has been at the helm for 24 games over the past two years. Of the 60 players called into the squad during that period, only three – RG Snyman, Johan Goosen (both injured) and Johan Grobbelaar – have received no game time at all.

In 2022, 46 of 48 squad members have represented the Boks across nine Tests. Nine players have made debuts this season – eight of those in the series against Wales in July.

Nienaber has made these selections with next year’s World Cup in mind, but also with a view to one of the most important phases of South Africa’s development plan: the tour to Europe this November.

In the lead-up to the Rugby Championship decider against Argentina, the Bok coach confirmed that he will take 50 players on the six-game sojourn. The Boks will face Ireland, France, Italy and England, while the “SA Select XV” – effectively a South Africa A side comprising second- and third-string players – will play Munster and Bristol.

The players who have featured across the 2021 and 2022 seasons are likely to make up the touring group of 50 – although there may be one or two new faces in the mix. 

Jaden Hendrikse of South Africa handles the ball during a Rugby Championship match between Argentina Pumas and South Africa Springboks at Estadio Libertadores de América on 17 September 2022 in Avellaneda, Argentina. (Photo: Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images)

Rookies’ rise a catalyst for veterans

By luck or design, the team changes have provided Nienaber with valuable answers, and have revitalised the squad dynamic.

Cheslin Kolbe’s rotten run with injuries has continued into the 2022 season. Fortunately, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie have filled the void on the right wing. While the Bok management will be glad to have Kolbe fit and firing this November, it must encourage Nienaber to know that he has these potent finishers in reserve.

Jaden Hendrikse fought back after a horrific leg injury to be part of the wider squad at the start of 2022. Nine games into the season, he replaced Faf de Klerk as the team’s first-choice scrumhalf.

Suddenly, the Boks are well placed to include three outstanding scrumhalves in their World Cup squad. Hendrikse and De Klerk are fine tacticians with strong kicking games, while the more explosive Cobus Reinach may be used when the team opts for a less structured approach.

The rise of youngsters such as Hendrikse will push De Klerk and other veterans to find another gear as the race to France 2023 enters the home straight.

Over two seasons, Jasper Wiese has started the most Tests at No 8. Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw were blooded earlier this year, and should receive further opportunities on the tour to Europe. The great Duane Vermeulen still commands a place in the squad, but is going to have to regain a starting place.

It remains to be seen when RG Snyman will make his comeback. The Boks boast three world-class locks in Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert. Salmaan Moerat, Marvin Orie and Ruan Nortje can push this trio in the coming months.

Prop Ox Nche is yet another who has been successfully integrated in the wake of the Boks’ successful World Cup campaign.

While Nienaber hasn’t always struck the right balance in his selections – and the composition of the bench as well as timing of the substitutions have been hotly debated – he has endeavoured to provide a host of front-rowers with opportunities, and has succeeded in adding another layer of depth. 

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Search for third hooker continues

If fit, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi will travel to the World Cup as the hookers. Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus are determined to select a utility forward to cover the third hooker berth and openside flank.

Deon Fourie made his Test debut against Wales in July. While he has worn the No 16 jersey on two occasions since, he has been used primarily as a flank replacement.

If Fourie is to cover hooker at a World Cup staged in the northern hemisphere – where set-piece performances will shape matches and results – he must be allowed to develop and adjust to the unique demands of scrummaging at Test level and to experience the pressure of feeding the lineout. Perhaps he will get an opportunity in this position – and show he can be a genuine utility option at the World Cup – on the Europe tour.

The search for a third specialist to cover Marx and Mbonambi continues. Was Nienaber right to select Joseph Dweba to start against the All Blacks in Johannesburg and against the Wallabies in Adelaide? Many will argue that, in the injury-enforced absence of Mbonambi, Marx should have started both matches.

And yet, in the context of squad development, Nienaber had good reason to back Dweba in those fixtures. Unfortunately, Dweba didn’t capitalise on the opportunity.

There is talk of Bulls hooker Johan Grobbelaar getting to tour Europe. It will be interesting to see where Dweba and Grobbelaar stand in the pecking order, and how Fourie – as a hooker – is accommodated. 

Jacques Nienaber, head coach of South Africa, during the Rugby Championship 2022 match between Argentina and South Africa at Estadio Libertadores de America on 17 September 2022 in Avellaneda, Argentina. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

Flyhalf crisis a blessing in disguise

The Bok coaches haven’t gone out of their way to address the depth at flyhalf over the past five years. Last month, Nienaber’s luck finally ran out when Handré Pollard broke down with a serious knee injury and Elton Jantjies was forced to fly home to deal with personal issues related to an alleged affair.

With Goosen still on the comeback trail, Nienaber had to rely on Willemse – the first-choice fullback – and then Frans Steyn – primarily a centre – to fill the No 10 void.

Willemse was outstanding in the wins against Australia and Argentina, and it’s a shame that he was forced to withdraw ahead of the Rugby Championship decider due to concussion. There’s been much debate about his potential as a Test flyhalf since his debut in 2018. He has proved he can do the job – and offer something different to Pollard.

In a sense, what transpired in the Rugby Championship was a blessing in disguise, as Nienaber was forced to explore a third – and subsequently a fourth – option. The Bok team boss has confirmed that he will take two specialists to the World Cup next year, and that one of the utility backs – read Willemse, Steyn or even Goosen – will provide further cover.

In the short term, Nienaber would do well to give players other than first-choice a run in the position.

His hand may be forced once again in late November when the Boks play England in a Test outside the international window.

Players based in Europe – such as Pollard, who plays his club rugby for Leicester – may not be available for the clash at Twickenham. And will Jantjies return?

Willemse or Goosen may be saddled with responsibility, and while that may disrupt the team’s continuity and short-term goals, it may serve their development objectives and provide some definitive answers about where they stand. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Stephen Stephen says:

    Of more concern to many supporters is the Springboks predictable pattern of play. This mainly consists of box kicks and mauls that lead to another box kick etc. Our wings are often starved of opportunity to attack and spend most of the game defending against opposition attacks that originate from possession kicked away by the Boks. Where are our players who will kick or chip over the opposing backline deep into their corner, leaving the opposing backs no option but to scramble back in defense? Worst case scenario is they will be under such pressure they will have no option but to kick for touch thus setting up a line out with SA to throw in. With high up and unders an isolated Bok runner will be against two or three opposing players, often taller than he is. The odds favour the receivers of up and unders at least two thirds of the time. The result is possession kicked away. For box kicks to work they have to be very clinical – difficult to do consistently. I fear we are in for more of the same. While I cannot remember Joos kicking away possession a lot of the time, Fourie du Preez was a good exponent of accurate box kicks that often put the opposite side under pressure. The question is whether our current halfbacks have the same accuracy or ability?

    • Gordon Pascoe says:

      Agree wholeheartedly. Not sure whether or not coaching staff count the number of tries scored against after after kicking away possession but it is far too high.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    How does one spell fly-half? L-I-B-BOK. As for my biggest concern? Red Zone conversion.

  • Philip Armstrong says:

    Must confess I have an uncomfortable feeling about Nienaber, though the journalist paints a picture of someone who knows what he is doing, I am not convinced. Selections have been incoherent and explanations rather obscure, to say the least – read Dweba starting instead on Marx in the Ellis Park test against our most formidable opponent. This was the year to truly blood some really talented youngsters e.g. Louw, Roos, etc. yet we keep falling back on the tried and tested (Dad’s Army e.g. Steyn, Vermeulen). The only blooding of youngsters was largely forced on us by injuries e.g. Arendse, Moodie for Kolbe, Willemse for Pollard. This side is potentially brimful of talent that could really open up our game but we stick to the same, same old. That doesn’t reflect to me someone who really has a grip on a game plan or a well thought through strategy. I fear that the upcoming European tour is going to really expose Nienaber to our detriment.

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