Rugby Championship marks the beginning of the end of a Bok era that was built to peak in France
The fact that the Springboks can send a virtually full team to New Zealand, in addition to fielding a quality 23-man squad in Pretoria to face Australia, is a victory for planning.
When Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber returned from Munster in Ireland to take on Springbok jobs in early 2018, they immediately made it clear that Rugby World Cup 2023 was the target.
They hoped, but didn’t expect, to turn the Boks around from record defeats and their lowest world ranking to world champions in 2019. But they did. They didn’t expect to encounter a global pandemic, which robbed them of a year of planned development, but they did. And they coped and adapted.
And so they arrived in 2023 – to a world emerging from all sorts of Covid disruptions – as reigning world champions with new and different pressures. They come into this season for the first time in nearly five years with no clear objective beyond 28 October 2023 – the day of the Rugby World Cup final.
This weekend, the final stage of the project starts in the Rugby Championship. It’s officially the beginning of the end of an era. Nienaber leaves his post after RWC 2023 and many of the players will also move on. But there is so much still to pack in, in the last four months of this six-year RasNaber safari.
Ever since they started on this journey, 28 October has been the targeted date. Many excellent things happened in between, such as a certain day in Yokohama nearly four years ago, but the objective never changed.
Erasmus and Nienaber wanted their project to reach its peak in France 2023. Despite the highs along the way (the lows were factored in), that objective has not altered.
That commitment to the long-term project; that attention to detail and planning, and the ability to adapt and change, is manifested in the squad we see today.
Wallaby fullback Reece Hodge exaggerated slightly when he said the “Boks have six world-class players in every position”, but it underlines the point. In five seasons (in reality, only four seasons, as 202o was lost to Covid) Erasmus and Nienaber have created great depth and a distinctive playing style.
The irony is that they didn’t start this project from scratch. Most of the players who played against Wales on 2 December 2017 – Allister Coetzee’s final Test in charge – are now Bok stalwarts.
The team that day: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Warrick Gelant, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Dan du Preez, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff. On the bench was Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Uzair Cassiem, Oupa Mohoje, Louis Schreuder, Elton Jantjies and Lukhanyo Am.
Only a handful of those players have not featured under Nienaber and Erasmus. And many of the names are still first choices six years on.
They also didn’t know that a Makazole Mapimpi, Herschel Jantjies, Jaden Hendrikse, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Manie Libbok would emerge over time. Players always emerge – the trick is identifying them and taking a chance on talent.
Erasmus and Nienaber had a plan and whittled the players down to those they wanted by backing newcomers or returning to established players who’d fallen out of the reckoning under previous coaches.
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Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk fall into the latter category. Le Roux and De Klerk were already capped Boks when Nienaber and Erasmus took over, while Kolbe was the most exciting prospect in South African rugby. But no other coaches had the courage to back him.
Final act starts
So, the final act begins this weekend against the Wallabies, who themselves are on the start of a new journey with returning coach Eddie Jones. Like the Boks, they have a long-term plan and made the home World Cup in 2027 a priority.
But deep down, the Wallabies know that if the Boks could win RWC 2019 after such a fallow few years preceding it, perhaps that can spring a surprise at RWC 2023.
Winning at Loftus for the first time would be a good way to build their belief. The Springboks are obviously targeting a victory in New Zealand next week to give them the psychological boost they want for the rest of the season.
But it hinges on winning at Loftus. History says they should win, but Nienaber has picked a team light on combination synergy, although heavy on talent and experience in most departments.
Even debutant lock Jean Kleyn has Test experience and six years of tough European competition in the tank. His five Test caps for Ireland in 2019 gave him a taste of the highest level and now he has a small chance of forcing his way into World Cup contention.
His selection is another example of how Erasmus and Nienaber have managed to find solutions when their best-laid plans are knocked off course.
Salmaan Moerat was being groomed for the position, but a long-term knee injury ruled him out. There wasn’t a ready pool of experienced, Test-quality locks behind the established Boks in South Africa.
But Kleyn, thanks to a change in eligibility rules, was available as a South African-born player. Although South Africa opposed the change to the eligibility rules, they were passed anyway, and Erasmus quickly spotted a way that could benefit the Boks.
“It was a great honour to play for Ireland, but growing up I used to watch Bakkies Botha on the field, thinking one day (I could make it),” Kleyn said. Dreams come true… here I am. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity, but things change.
“I was as shocked as the rest of the world when I got the call,” Kleyn said.
“My journey (here) was a bit of a round trip because Rassie was the person who took me to Munster, and four years later he was also the person to bring me back.”
The Boks also lost Ox Nche on Wednesday to a pectoral muscle injury that has ruled him out of the Rugby Championship. Steven Kitshoff has been asked to start against the Wallabies instead of leaving early for New Zealand and, almost out of nowhere, Bulls prop Gerhard Steenekamp will be on the plane to New Zealand.
Steenekamp hasn’t formally been part of any Bok “alignment camps”, but it’s another example of the coaches having a plan D if needed.
Steenekamp’s United Rugby Championships stats are good, and although his selection is a risk and a stop-gap, he has been tracking on the coaches’ radar.
“We’ve always emphasised the importance of being adaptable as a team and that will be particularly important this season with the Rugby Championship, World Cup warm-up games and the global showpiece itself coming up,” Nienaber said.
“We are fortunate to have such depth at our disposal. We’ve been tracking between 50 and 60 players in the last few seasons with an eye on the World Cup, so we know what talent we have at our disposal.
“This will also be a fantastic opportunity for Gerhard to experience our systems and to be in the national set-up. He’s been impressive for the Bulls this season and he’s a former Junior Springbok, so we are excited to see what he has to offer at training.”
The clock marking the end of the era has begun ticking in earnest. DM