Erasmus’s big Bok squad ticks all the boxes – for now
The new coach has uses overseas-based players sparingly and has met his transformation targets without fuss
The thing with huge squads is that they appease most pundits and fans because few players are overlooked in such a bloated group.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus named 43 players in his first squad of 2018 and it’s hard to gripe about any of the selections, both the chosen and the omitted.
Erasmus has been meticulous in his selections by rewarding form, using overseas-based players sparingly and meeting his transformation targets without fuss. There are 19 black players in the squad, which puts him precisely on the 45% transformation target line in 2018.Besides injured stalwarts such as locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, hooker Malcolm Marx , No 8 Warren Whiteley and centre Jan Serfontein, players left out are peripheral at best.
There has been some outcry that the Lions, South Africa’s leading team in Super Rugby, only have five representatives. But an honest assessment reveals that those Lions players left out are not exactly setting Super Rugby alight.
Fullback Andries Coetzee was an ever-present for the Boks in 2017, but he has been mediocre for the Lions this season. Similarly, scrumhalf Ross Cronje’s season has been plagued by injury and poor form. Centre Lionel Mapoe is not even starting for the Lions and when fully fit might come back into the Bok reckoning, but right now he wasn’t in the frame.
Erasmus has done a good job of rewarding individual form and adding an experienced spine of overseas-based players to the mix.
The five overseas-based players in his squad – hooker Bismarck du Plessis, scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, fullback Willie le Roux, centre Frans Steyn and No 8 Duane Vermeulen – collectively bring 226 out of a total of 627 caps to the squad.
With Marx out injured, turning to the in-form and experienced Du Plessis was a no brainer. The same applied for Vermeulen in Whiteley’s absence, although Vermeulen would have been in regardless of Whiteley’s health.Steyn, another of the French contingent in the squad, has been in great form for Montpellier, and at 31, fit and motivated, still has a great deal to offer in terms of experience and skill.
Le Roux falls into the same category as the others, having proven Test pedigree with the other two fullbacks in the squad – Warrick Gelant and Curwin Bosch – having three Test caps between them.De Klerk’s inclusion is a signal of the porous depth at halfback at the moment. It’s a position that remains one of the weak points in South African rugby in general.Ruan Pienaar was overlooked for this squad even though he has starred for Montpellier all season and gave a sublime performance in the Top 14 semifinals at the weekend.
With 88 Bok caps there has been a clamour of voices calling for his inclusion, but it’s understandable why he was overlooked.
First, Pienaar at 34 is not a solution in the medium term, let alone the long term. Second, sources indicate he wasn’t available for Test duty again because of his plans to return to live and coach in Ireland at Ulster when his stint in France is done.
Erasmus only has 19 Tests before the 2019 World Cup and he will need every one of them to develop his halfbacks. The five overseas-based players chosen are all in the frame for the World Cup as well. Pienaar isn’t.
De Klerk has been a star for Sale in England this year but he only boasts 11 Test caps, which is 11 more than the other three scrumhalves in the squad.The identity of Rassie Erasmus’s first choices will become clearer in the coming days when he selects the team to face Wales in Washington and also his first team for the first Test against England on June 9. The squad will be cut to 30 after the first Test against England.
The team to face Wales won’t include the five overseas-based players because it falls out of World Rugby’s official Test window (although Vermeulen might be the exception since his French contract ends shortly).
The 13-strong Sharks contingent is also going to be used sparingly because they only returned from Argentina on Sunday, so the first two Tests of the Erasmus era will be like trial matches before the cull.
Ideally Erasmus would have preferred to start with a smaller squad and only have the three-Test series against England to focus on. But professional rugby is never an ideal world.
The consequence is that several young players will have an unexpected chance to play a Test and, more significantly, to force Erasmus’s hand with strong performances before he wields the axe.