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Springbok leadership comes under the spotlight after triple injury setback ahead of World Cup

Springbok leadership comes under the spotlight after triple injury setback ahead of World Cup
Eben Etzebeth of South Africa during the 2023 Castle Lager Rugby Championship match between South Africa and Argentina at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg on 29 July 2023. (Photo: Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

South Africa have not only lost three key players to injury ahead of the Rugby World Cup, namely Handré Pollard, Lukhanyo Am and Lood de Jager, but have also lost three important team leaders.

The Springbok coaches have selected the strongest available squad for the World Cup challenge in France.

However, in light of the injury-enforced omissions of Handré Pollard, Lukhanyo Am and Lood de Jager, as well as uncertainty about Siya Kolisi’s return to action, they may have to rethink their leadership dynamic as the global tournament draws closer.

Coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have done an outstanding job of developing a wider squad over the past six years. More than 100 young men have been exposed to the Bok systems, with most of those players going on to represent the senior team or South Africa A.

Lukhanyo Am of Sharks during the United Rugby Championship 2022/23 match between Sharks and Benetton Rugby at Kings Park in Durban on 14 April 2023. (Photo:Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

Most experienced RWC squad ever

The coaches have occasionally prioritised development over results, and have sought to develop a squad – rather than just a run-on XV – with the potential to peak at a World Cup. They have invested in multiple leaders, with eight players captaining the side at various stages of this four-year cycle.

The upshot is that the Boks will travel to France with the most experienced South African group in history. Though they would have preferred to have Pollard, Am and De Jager in tow, the 33-man squad boasts a combined 1,323 caps – nearly 300 more than the group that won the tournament four years ago. Erasmus and Nienaber have retained 23 of the 33 players used at the previous World Cup in Japan, and are going all out to defend that crown.

Nevertheless, they will face several selection headaches ahead of the first World Cup pool match against Scotland. These decisions will influence the make-up of the 23 who play in Marseille on 10 September, as well as that of the leadership group.

Kolisi in need of game time

In an ideal scenario, Kolisi will make a full recovery from his knee injury to feature in both World Cup warm-ups later this month. In spite of his ailment, the Bok skipper has been training with the squad since before the Rugby Championship.

The hard-working flanker – who has been one of the team’s most consistent performers in recent seasons, as well as its inspirational leader – hasn’t played a Test since November 2022. If he doesn’t feature against Wales on 19 August or against the All Blacks at Twickenham a week later, he will go into the World Cup cold.

Leadership poser for Bok World Cup squad

Though coming back from injury, Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi was present during the 2023 Castle Lager Rugby Championship Springbok captains’ run at Ellis Park on 28 July 2023. (Photo: Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

The Boks were in a similar position back in 2019, after Kolisi was sidelined with a serious knee injury and faced a race for fitness ahead of the World Cup in Japan.

On that occasion, Kolisi made it back to feature in the warm-ups against Argentina in Pretoria and against Japan in Kumagaya. He was managed carefully during the World Cup pool stages, and only regained full fitness and form in the playoffs.

The coaches will back Kolisi to bounce back in similar fashion over the next few weeks. The situation may be slightly complicated, though, by the fact that they are already missing so many other key leaders.

Can Boks absorb Pollard, Am loss?

Though the squad has been announced, the coaches haven’t given up on Pollard or Am just yet. The pair will travel with the team on the preliminary tour to Europe. They are crucial pieces in the leadership puzzle, and one can understand why the coaches would include them in the final stages of their World Cup planning.

At the same time, the fact that they are touring – and have officially been placed on standby in the event of World Cup injuries – suggests that they are not far away from returning to fitness.

But, as is the case with Kolisi, Erasmus and Nienaber should plan for a worst-case scenario in which Pollard and Am don’t make it back.

Handré Pollard during team practice in Johannesburg on 28 July 2023. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

The Boks have developed three or four options in most positions over the past six years. At flyhalf, however, they’ve relied heavily on Pollard, and were only recently forced to explore alternatives in Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok. After starting three games in the No 10 jersey this season, Libbok appears the favourite to stand in for Pollard at the World Cup.

Jesse Kriel shone in the injury-enforced absence of Am last November. Although the outside centre doesn’t boast Am’s creative touch, he remains one of the best defensive players in world rugby.

De Jager has been the leading No 5 for the Boks during the Erasmus-Nienaber era, with Franco Mostert used more as a utility player in the past three seasons.

Those line-out responsibilities will fall to World Cup newcomer Marvin Orie, and possibly Mostert, in France next month. RG Snyman has played No 5 for Munster in the United Rugby Championship, and could also be tasked with a new role at the Boks.

Vermeulen’s timely second coming

The spine of the team may have been compromised, but the Boks still have a number of important leaders in the mix.

Eben Etzebeth and Willie le Roux are both on the wrong side of 30, but both veterans have progressed since the last World Cup tournament in Japan and are better players than they were four years ago.

Duane Vermeulen’s second coming has been timely – not just in the context of his long Test career, which will conclude after the World Cup, but in the sense that the Boks need the grizzled veteran on the park now more than ever.

This time last year, Vermeulen was starting to contemplate a role from the bench, as star No 8 Jasper Wiese was preferred in the starting line-up. More recently, Vermeulen has led the Boks to important wins against Australia and Argentina, and spearheaded a brave fightback in the loss to the All Blacks in Auckland.

Ultimately, the 37-year-old has proved that he can play more than just a supporting role. And if Vermeulen is deemed good enough to start, he will add to the captaincy options.

The best-case scenario sees Kolisi, Pollard and Am all making it back to feature in the big World Cup pool matches. A more likely scenario sees Kolisi leading the team, with Vermeulen and Etzebeth providing support, and Libbok and Kriel occupying key roles at No 10 and No 13.

In the event that Kolisi takes more time to recover, Vermeulen or Etzebeth may be tasked with leading the side. Pieter-Steph du Toit and more recently Bongi Mbonambi have captained the team, and Deon Fourie took on the role after Mbonambi left the field in the latter stages of the recent Test against Argentina in Buenos Aires.

Kolisi’s prolonged absence will force a rethink about the back-row dynamic. Though the Boks have included several alternative openside options in their squad – Fourie, Kwagga Smith and Marco van Staden – they may want to settle on that combination before they face Scotland in Marseille on 10 September, and subsequently Ireland in Paris on 23 September. DM

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

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