Nice to see the old grizzlies but new Bok blood is essential
Coach Rassie Erasmus wants today’s greenhorns to form the bedrock of the team for the World Cup
What became increasingly clear over the last few years is that the Springboks need experience infinitely more than the grizzled high earners need the Springboks.
Last November’s tour, as well as the current Test series against England, has shown us the value of having relevant experience.
That said, Rassie Erasmus cannot afford to become over reliant on experience and, by extension, members of the foreign legion.
Previous Bok coaches went into survival mode from the get-go. Peter de Villiers effectively cut and pasted Jake White’s 2007 World Cup winners.
Heyneke Meyer had four new caps in Eben Etzebeth, Juandre Kruger, Marcell Coetzee and Coenie Oosthuizen in the first match day squad he assembled in 2012. By the time the Boks played Japan in the 2015 World Cup, however, he had nine players in the match day team who had also played in the 2007 World Cup.Erasmus, according to SA Rugby, has carte blanche when it comes to selecting players based abroad. The restrictive 30-Test benchmark was even waived.
But as is the case with most freedoms, Erasmus’s right to cast the net wide should not be abused.
Experience in the spine of the team has and will continue to be essential and it is perhaps no coincidence that the coach opted to rope in No 8 Duane Vermeulen, scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and fullback Willie le Roux. He was also keen to have hooker Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn somewhere in the central thread.
There had been concerns that Vermeulen’s time in the limb-numbing Top 14 would gradually take its toll. Wearing the Bok jersey, however, seems to energise the full frontal No 8.
There is uncertainty over how long he will be available for the Boks this year as he is in the process of negotiating a new club deal, possibly in Japan.
The Boks have played 71 Tests from the moment Vermeulen made his debut in 2012. That he has played in only 41 borders on national tragedy.
De Klerk’s Test career appeared to be over following the Boks’ defeat against Wales in Cardiff in 2016. A season with a revitalised Sale Sharks not only put the spring back in De Klerk’s step, but his game has grown in dimension.Wasps utility back Le Roux, too, has benefited from playing in conditions where every decision carries weighty consequences.
Hooker Schalk Brits, lured out of retirement, has proved a helpful addition to the squad even if he is yet to play. He is there because Du Plessis couldn’t make it. Du Plessis and Frans Steyn withdrew from the squad, ostensibly through injury, but there is the lingering suspicion that medical insurance and other logistical issues around getting foreign based players into the Bok jersey requires further careful consideration.
Erasmus also had the injured flyhalf Pat Lambie and centre Jan Serfontein as well as tighthead Vincent Koch on his radar, but as far as foreign-based players are concerned there would be no need to look wider in compiling a World Cup squad.
The coach’s focus, however, is building experience in the furnace of Test rugby. He introduced 16 new players to Test rugby in the first two Tests this year. Of course, not all of them will see action in the Rugby Championships.
Malcolm Marx, Warren Whiteley, Eben Etzebeth, Trevor Nyakane and Jaco Kriel may restore further familiarity to the squad, while Lizo Gqoboka is another beast waiting to be unleashed.
Erasmus is hoping today’s greenhorns, and not those who will be long in the tooth next year, will form the bedrock of the side at the World Cup. Hence even if the Boks fail in Japan, Erasmus would have left a legacy .