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RUGBY

World Cup Bok squad picture is slowly coming into focus

World Cup Bok squad picture is slowly coming into focus
Pieter-Steph du Toit (centre) of Toyota Verblitz is tackled by Jack Cornelsen (right) of Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights during the League One match between Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Toyota Verblitz at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium on 15 January 2023 in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. (Photo: Toru Hanai / Getty Images)

Springbok hopefuls will feature in two camps this month and a larger group will gather once all players have fulfilled their club commitments.

SA Rugby director Rassie Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber have been planning for the 2023 World Cup since they joined the Springbok set-up in 2018. After securing a six-year contract, Erasmus implemented a set of structures with the aim of succeeding in both the short and long term.

After winning the 2019 World Cup, Erasmus and Nienaber adjusted their plans for the global tournament in France – because an entire season was lost to Covid-19 in 2020. Despite that setback, they succeeded in strengthening the team’s depth, using 76 players across the Test and South Africa A squads in 2021 and 2022.

Fine-tuning process under way

Fast-forward to the present, and the fine-tuning for the 2023 World Cup is well under way. The Bok coaches have already hosted two preparation camps this year, and will stage three more in the lead-up to the Rugby Championship.

A select group of players will feature in the two camps in Durban later this month. A larger group will congregate for a three-week training camp from 12 June, once all the individuals based at home and abroad have fulfilled their club commitments.

The Boks are scheduled to face Scotland in the World Cup Pool B opener in less than four months’ time. The timeline between now and the World Cup squad announcement is far shorter.

Though six Tests are scheduled between now and the start of the World Cup proper, the 33-man squad will have been selected by the time the Boks travel to Europe to play Wales and the All Blacks in a few pre-­tournament friendlies. In short, Nienaber and Erasmus have less than three months to finalise the group of 33, which is expected to be announced on 8 August.

Willie le Roux of Toyota Verblitz during the NTT Japan Rugby League One match between NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu and Toyota Verblitz at Kashiwanoha Park Stadium on 27 March 2022 in Kashiwa, Chiba, Japan. (Photo: Kenta Harada / Getty Images)

Returning in waves

The Bok coaches have opted to stage three camps in succession because groups of players will be returning to South Africa in waves over the next few weeks.

The 15 players selected for the initial camp in Durban from 17 to 19 May include those who have already concluded their club commitments – as the Bulls, the Sharks and the respective Japanese teams are no longer in contention for silverware.

The results of the United Rugby Champion­ship (URC) and League One semifinals will determine which players join the group in Durban for the first camp. A sizeable Bok contingent in the Stormers side will miss the first camp after they beat Connacht on Saturday and advanced to the final.

Lood de Jager and Damian de Allende (both Panasonic Wild Knights), Faf de Klerk and Jesse Kriel (both Canon Eagles), Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears) and Franco Mostert (Honda Heat) could also be back in South Africa sooner than expected, should their clubs lose in the penultimate round of the Japanese competitions.

Pieter-Steph du Toit and Willie le Roux (both Toyota Verblitz) and Kwagga Smith (Shizuoka Blue Revs) are already home, and will participate in the coming camps.

Regardless of results, all of these players should be available for the second camp, starting on 29 May – the week after the URC final. It’s also unclear when first-choice ­flyhalf Handré Pollard and those based in England will be released, even if their teams fail to progress to the Premiership final.

Cheslin Kolbe and others playing in France may be late for the third camp, as the long Top 14 season only concludes on 17 June.

Back in 2019, Erasmus rotated his squad across the shortened Rugby Championship. The “B” team claimed an emphatic bonus-point win in the opening-round fixture against Australia in Johannesburg, whereas the first-choice group travelled ahead to New Zealand, and eventually secured an important draw in Wellington.

Thereafter, a full-strength side thrashed Argentina in Salta to secure the title. A far weaker outfit, which included a few fringe players whom Erasmus wanted to assess before the World Cup squad announcement, beat the Pumas in Pretoria.

Balance between rotation and momentum

By favouring a split-squad system, Erasmus managed to secure a series of important results while giving more players and combinations game time before the World Cup. Ultimately, the Boks took plenty of momentum into the global tournament in Japan, and went on to win the trophy.

They may be inclined to adopt the same plan in 2023, as the Test schedule is somewhat similar. Their Rugby Championship opener against Australia in Pretoria will be immediately followed by an important clash against the All Blacks in Auckland. Again, they may opt for a split squad across the two fixtures with the aim of maximising results.

With that strategy in mind, it will be interesting to see who makes the cut for the third camp in Pretoria. A larger squad will be needed to navigate the Rugby Championship and to build momentum for the World Cup. And although 33 players will travel to France, another 10 players or so will be placed on standby, in the event of injuries.

Initial camp selections highlight concerns

Over the next few weeks, however, Nienaber and company will assess the injuries and fitness levels of some of the team’s most important players. Captain Siya Kolisi, veteran lock Eben Etzebeth and star scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse are all recovering from serious ailments, but will participate in the coming camps.

But when these players return to the field, with Kolisi in a race to be ready for the World Cup itself, is still a moving target.

Publicly, SA Rugby will play down Kolisi’s injury. Behind closed doors, Erasmus and Nienaber will be working on a contingency plan to ensure the team is covered – for a captain as well as a star openside flank – in the event that Kolisi doesn’t bounce back from his knee injury.

Another player – possibly Etzebeth, Du Toit or Duane Vermeulen, as all have captained the Boks in the past – may be asked to lead the team in the Rugby Championship. Smith and Marco van Staden have been invited to the Bok camps, and the inclusion of the latter – a No 6 specialist – suggests that the coaches are determined to cover their bases. Deon Fourie could provide yet another option at openside once the Stormers’ URC campaign concludes.

The Boks will hope that Etzebeth recovers soon, as they are thin at No 4 lock. Salmaan Moerat sustained a serious knee injury last December and may not be available for the World Cup. Munster’s RG Snyman was ruled out of the URC semifinal because of a concussion, but should be back for the Rugby Championship.

The good news is that the Boks are spoiled for choice at scrumhalf. Although it’s hoped that Hendrikse will be ready for the Rugby Championship, the team will undoubtedly  be boosted by De Klerk’s return in the coming weeks. The lightning-quick Grant Williams has been included for the camps, and Herschel Jantjies (Stormers) and Cobus Reinach (Montpellier) will bolster the group once they have fulfilled their respective commitments. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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