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RUGBY

Boks have most Rugby World Cup bases covered, but composition of the final squad is far from settled

Boks have most Rugby World Cup bases covered, but composition of the final squad is far from settled
Ox Nché during a training session in Cape Town in February. The prop's inclusion in the Bok World Cup squad is uncertain owing to an injury earlier this season. (Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix)

The 33-man Springbok squad for Rugby World Cup 2023 will be named on 8 August and, though there are unlikely to be many surprises, there are still tough questions for the brains trust to answer.

The Springboks’ four-year development process concluded when the team – minus 16 of their best players – travelled to Argentina for the final game ahead of the World Cup squad announcement. After presiding over 31 Tests, head coach Jacques Nienaber is well placed to select a balanced 33-man group that covers most of the bases.

The squad will be announced on 8 August and there are unlikely to be many surprises. What’s more, Nienaber recently revealed that five extra players will accompany the 33-man squad on their preliminary tour of Europe.

These extra players will be on standby for the duration of the global tournament, should any of the official squad members succumb to campaign-ending injuries. The upshot is that 38 of the 43 players initially selected for the wider training squad will be in the World Cup frame. Four players will be surplus to requirements, but flyhalf Elton Jantjies has already been released.

Read more: Bok fringe players pose tough questions for management before RWC 2023 squad announcement

Nienaber and the selectors have covered most of their bases in the lead-up to this moment. And yet they will depart South Africa with a few nagging questions, which may only be answered in the warm-up matches against Wales on 19 August and against the All Blacks on 25 August.

Injured trio in the spotlight

Bok captain Siya Kolisi (knee) and flyhalf Handré Pollard (calf) are on the mend, and Nienaber is hopeful that the pair will be available for the warm-ups in Cardiff and London later this month.

It’s a risk including two partially fit players for an assignment of this magnitude, and a concern that neither individual has played a Test since late 2022. But, given the duo’s experience and ability to amplify the talents of those around them, it’s a risk worth taking.

The bigger concern is at prop. Ox Nché sustained a serious pectoral injury on the eve of the Rugby Championship, and hasn’t featured since. Although the Bok management remains optimistic about his recovery, it will be interesting to see whether he makes the 33-man cut.

Nché has proved one of the “finds” of this four-year cycle – offsetting the retirement of legend Beast Mtawarira – but is not as essential as leaders such as Kolisi and ­Pollard.

Bok selection clues

Bok captain Siya Kolisi has seen no game time this year because of a knee injury. (Photo: Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

In an ideal world, Kolisi, Pollard and Nché will make a full recovery over the next few weeks and feature in the matches against Wales and New Zealand. They have already proved that they have the talent to contribute to a World Cup campaign.

Nienaber will take out an insurance policy, though, by including five additional players for the two-match tour of Europe. If Kolisi, for example, doesn’t bounce back before the World Cup starts, you’d expect to see likely World Cup squad members such as Kwagga Smith or Deon Fourie wearing the No 6 jersey, as they have done recently.

Marco van Staden has strengthened his case for inclusion in recent weeks, but if he doesn’t make the 33-man cut, he will at the very least form part of the five-man standby group. In the latter scenario, Van Staden will prove a useful alternative in Cardiff or London, should Smith and Fourie be un­available for those matches.

Third hooker berth shrouded in mystery

Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus have been transparent about their long-term plans for Fourie since the versatile player made his Test debut against Wales last July.

Schalk Brits played a utility role at the 2019 World Cup, covering the third hooker and back-row positions. The 36-year-old Deon Fourie, who began his career at hooker but has since evolved into one of the game’s best openside flankers, is expected to do a similar job for the Boks at the upcoming tournament in France.

There’s limited evidence to suggest that Fourie can fill the void left by Brits, though. Fourie has played seven Tests over the past two years and has been used as a loose forward on each occasion. He is yet to pack down with the Bok front row in a Test, either as a starter or sub.

Bok Worl Cuo selection questions

Deon Fourie, in training in July, has made an impact as a loose forward, but has yet to prove himself with the Bok front row in a Test. (Photo: Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

Many expected Nienaber to deploy Fourie in that position against Argentina in Buenos Aires – and to test the player’s aptitude for the hooking duties with a view to the World Cup.

Although the call to back hooker Bongi Mbonambi as the captain for this fixture was lauded – given the player’s experience and influence within the team – the decision to select Joseph Dweba on the bench and deny Fourie a golden opportunity in the front row raised a few eyebrows.

Barring injury, Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx will travel to the tournament as the team’s frontline hookers. If Dweba is excluded from the initial squad, Fourie will travel to France as the Boks’ third-choice hooker.

Fourie has made an impact as a loose forward over the past season or so and has proved that he can mix it with the best back-rowers in Test rugby.

As a scrummager and line-out exponent, however, he is yet to make his mark at Test level, and this should be a worry ahead of a World Cup where the set pieces will be integral to success.

It would be a disaster if the Boks lost either Mbonambi or Marx on the eve of a World Cup playoff, and if Fourie was drafted into that role without any prior experience. Perhaps Fourie will be given the chance to prove himself in this capacity against Wales and New Zealand.

Fine-tuning process is ongoing

The final days before the World Cup squad announcement will give Nienaber the chance to address pertinent questions about the balance between forwards and backs, and whether one individual offers more than another.

Jaden Hendrikse proved a quality alternative to frontline scrumhalf Faf de Klerk in 2022, but hasn’t played a Test in 2023. Does he join De Klerk and one other scrumhalf in the 33-man group? Grant Williams has been brilliant this season, but will the experience of Herschel Jantjies or Cobus Reinach be preferred?

Has Canan Moodie done enough to usurp Makazole Mapimpi, or will the veteran be essential at a tournament where experience is paramount?

Do both outside backs deserve to go, at the expense of centre André Esterhuizen? Should more forwards be included to cover for the injured Kolisi, and possibly Nché too? These are important questions, and Nienaber will face even tougher decisions in the lead-up to the World Cup pool matches against ­Scotland and Ireland. DM

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

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