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Fitting 43 into 33: the Bok selection conundrum

Fitting 43 into 33: the Bok selection conundrum
Springbok RG Snyman is on the ball during a match against the New Zealand All Blacks in Auckland in July 2023. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Vexing questions face the Springboks’ brains trust as they pick a RWC squad. Should it be a forwards-backs split of 18–15 or 19–14? Do they need more than five outside backs? What about six props?

The Springboks have been training with an extended World Cup squad over the course of the Rugby Championship. Thirty-three of those players will travel to Europe as part of the official World Cup squad in the coming weeks.

The other 10 will be placed on standby, with two or three – if the rate of attrition at past tournaments is any indicator – likely to fly to France as replacements at some stage of the competition.

Nevertheless, coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have some tough calls to make in the lead-up to the World Cup squad announcement on 8 August.

Does Player A offer more than Player B in a specific position, or is a utility player needed in that department? Do we have enough experience across the respective units?

Stalwart wing Makazole Mapimpi is in a fight for his RWC 2023 place with the rise of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie over the past year. (Photo: Getty Images)

Do we have enough X-factor players to complement our power game and tactical kicking strengths? The selectors will ponder these questions and more as they finalise their 33-man squad over the coming days.

Erasmus, Nienaber and many of the current coaches and players went through this process in 2019. This time around, they will have two more players in the official World Cup squad, and could play as many as nine Tests after departing South Africa.

This extensive schedule may influence squad selections, and may even lead to a few injury-enforced changes before the World Cup starts on 8 September.

The Boks will play Wales and New Zealand in warm-ups in late August, before turning their attention to the World Cup pool matches against Scotland, Romania, Ireland and Tonga. If all goes to plan, they will progress to the playoffs and the final on 28 October.

Nienaber recently confirmed that Bok captain Siya Kolisi and first-choice flyhalf Handré Pollard were likely to travel with the World Cup squad to Europe, in spite of their injury status.

Kolisi (knee) is yet to represent the Boks this season, whereas Pollard (calf) last played Test rugby in August 2022. Both are deemed essential to the team’s cause and will be given as much time as needed to recover from their respective ailments.

Versatility or specialisation

The coaches will consider the nine-game schedule, the attritional nature of this tournament and the northern hemisphere venue when they finalise selections and determine the split between forwards and backs.

Whether they should opt for an 18-15 or 19-14 split will be a heated point of debate, right up until the conclusion of the Test against Argentina in Buenos Aires on 5 August. The World Cup squad will be unveiled three days later.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them opt for a smaller group of backs that includes several utility players. In that scenario, they would be well placed to cope with minor injury setbacks over the course of the World Cup, and ideally positioned to persist with a 6-2 split on the bench.

Five current outside backs – Willie le Roux, Damian Willemse, Cheslin Kolbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie – cover two or more positions.

The coaches face a big call on whether to pick 20-year-old Moodie ahead of the 2019 World Cup hero Makazole Mapimpi. Like Arendse, Moodie has invigorated the Bok attack over the past 12 months. Mapimpi has some credit in the selection bank, but may well be the casualty if the coaches select five outside backs instead of six.

Do the Bok coaches need more than five, though, if they include a host of versatile midfield and halfback options? Apart from André Esterhuizen, players such as Jesse Kriel (wing) and Damian de Allende (outside centre) have started in more than one position over the past four years.

Bok choices ahead of RWC

Brilliant centre Lukhanyo Am is one of the players the Boks can least afford to lose to injury before, or during, RWC 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images/Wessel Oosthuizen)

Lukhanyo Am (wing), Pollard (inside centre), Manie Libbok (fullback) and Grant Williams (wing) have taken on different roles. Willemse may be listed with the outside backs, but is a genuine utility player, covering every backline position bar scrumhalf.

Versatility is not the only factor and many deserve to be considered on the back of stellar contributions in specific positions.

Nevertheless, versatility and adaptability are typical considerations in this World Cup squad selection process, and may ensure that some players are favoured over others.

Williams may well be included in a three-man scrumhalf group (along with Faf de Klerk and Jaden Hendrikse) ahead of Cobus Reinach and Herschel Jantjies. He’s already played one Test on the wing – against Wales in Bloemfontein last year. It might be easier to leave Mapimpi or Moodie at home.

Fourie, Mostert key to forward puzzle

Erasmus took several utility forwards (UFs) to the 2019 World Cup, with hooker Schalk Brits backed to start at No 8 in the pool match against Namibia. Since then, the Boks have formalised the UF category.

Perennial “UFs” Franco Mostert (lock and blindside flank) and Deon Fourie (hooker, flank and No 8) are likely to fulfil various roles at the 2023 competition in France.

The make-up of the forwards may be dictated by the choice of 15 or 14 backs in a squad of 33. Perhaps it’ll be an equation of 15 backs and a forward combo featuring Mostert plus three locks (Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman), and Mostert and Fourie plus five loose forwards (Kolisi, Kwagga Smith, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jasper Wiese and Duane Vermeulen).

But with the uncertainty about Kolisi and a demanding workload of nine games, they may be better served going with a 19-14 split between forwards and backs, and including an additional lock in Marvin Orie.

The workload may necessitate the selection of André “The Giant” Esterhuizen. The inside centre may not feature in big World Cup games if De Allende is fit, but could be used in warm-ups and what’s likely to be a physically demanding clash against Tonga. De Allende will need a break at some stage.

Fourie is set to fill the role played by Brits in 2019, providing cover for Bongi Mbo­nambi and Steven Kitshoff at hooker and offering a back-row option.

The coaches may take six props, with Ox Nché, Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch the specialists and Trevor Nyakane and Thomas du Toit as “swing props”, packing down on either side of the scrum. DM

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

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