Pollard setback challenges Bok selection strategy
When the Springbok coaches planned for the upcoming season, they had hoped to have a fully fit squad. That’s not the case.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber unveiled their 41-man Springbok squad for the coming Test season on 10 June. At that stage, it seemed as if the coaches had covered all their bases, and were well placed to persist with a split-squad strategy – which yielded two major titles back in 2019 – from the start of the Rugby Championship to the end of the World Cup.
Since then, it’s been confirmed that another top Bok will join Siya Kolisi on the sidelines. The coaches said this past week that first-choice flyhalf Handré Pollard is unlikely to be available for the Rugby Championship campaign, after he injured his calf while on duty for Leicester Tigers in the English Premiership semifinals.
Second-choice pivot Damian Willemse – who impressed at No 10 in Pollard’s injury-enforced absence late last year – may miss the start of the tournament owing to a knee ailment. The upshot is that Elton Jantjies was recalled to the squad this week. When Pollard was ruled out, Manie Libbok, who earned three Test caps on the tour to Europe last November, was the only fit flyhalf in the squad.
When the coaches sat down to plan their selections for the upcoming season, they would have hoped to have a fully fit squad for the Rugby Championship. In that scenario, they would have been in a position to persist with the tactic of sending a group of first-choice players to New Zealand ahead of the all-important second fixture against the All Blacks in Auckland, and fielding a second-string team in the tournament opener against the Wallabies in Pretoria.
In that ideal scenario, Pollard – as the team’s premier pivot and one of its leaders – would have accompanied the A team to New Zealand. Either Willemse or Libbok may have been backed to start at No 10 against the Wallabies – assuming Willemse wasn’t sent with the group to New Zealand as the first-choice fullback option ahead of Willie le Roux.
With Pollard and Willemse injured, Erasmus and Nienaber will have to back Libbok as the first-choice flyhalf in the fixture against the All Blacks. While there’s still a chance that Willemse will recover for the season-opener against the Wallabies, the coaches may favour another starting option for that clash.
The Jantjies conundrum
Elton Jantjies occupied the role of Pollard’s understudy with aplomb between 2018 and 2021. He was one of the stars of the 35-17 win against the Wallabies in Joburg four years ago. He marshalled the B team during the World Cup in Japan, and was an invaluable member of a successful Bok contingent.
Erasmus and Nienaber believe that Jantjies could occupy a similar role this season, even though much of the evidence points to the contrary. Jantjies’ off-field issues led to the termination of his club contract in Japan last year. Since then, he has been playing for Agen in France’s second division.
His lack of recent game time for the Boks has been a big talking point. When he was presented with a rare opportunity to start against Wales in Pretoria last July, he produced an error-strewn performance and was subbed at half-time. He made one more appearance in the 2022 season, coming off the bench in the defeat to Australia in Adelaide.
The Bok coaches may be forced to give Jantjies another shot against the Wallabies in the season-opener on 8 July. They were reluctant to bring in a complete rookie at this stage. Whether Jantjies can make the necessary step up in intensity after playing second-division rugby and little else for the past 12 months is a thorny question.
To reiterate, the Boks have an outstanding squad. Outside of their injuries issues at flyhalf, they are well placed to field two excellent teams – an A and a B side – over the next few months. Erasmus and Nienaber may believe that the quality of the pack as well as the strength of the backs on either side of Jantjies offset the player’s rustiness.
The Boks will need cover for flyhalf regardless, and it may be that Jantjies is brought in to fulfil a bench role. This would see Libbok starting against the Wallabies in Pretoria and then flying to New Zealand to start against the All Blacks. It would be a big ask for any player.
There is an alternative flyhalf option for the clash against Australia – and it isn’t as extreme as some may believe. But if Willemse remains unavailable, Le Roux began his provincial career in that position, and often stands at first-receiver for the Boks in certain situations. But with Willemse unavailable, Le Roux is likely to travel to New Zealand as the first-choice fullback.
Four games left to impress
A lot has been made about the six remaining Tests before the World Cup tournament in France. Two of those games – against Wales in Cardiff and New Zealand in London – will be staged after the World Cup squad has arrived in Europe. In short, the coaches have four games, namely the three-Test Rugby Championship and the friendly against Argentina in Buenos Aires to finalise their World Cup squad selections.
The split-squad strategy should ensure that all players receive game time. The first-choice combination should be unleashed against New Zealand and Argentina, as the latter fixture in Johannesburg could well be a Rugby Championship title decider. The second-stringers should start against the Wallabies and in the second fixture against the Pumas.
The coaches will receive many answers during that period about a number of players. Libbok will have the chance to prove that he can be an asset to the first-choice side at the subsequent World Cup. All will be fighting for a spot in the final group of 33.
The quest to expose players to challenging situations – and to strengthen the group ahead of the World Cup – remains on track. Whether the Boks can win consistently over the next few months – without two of their most important leaders in Kolisi and Pollard – is a question that has no definitive answer. DM
This article first appeared in DM168 at the weekend.