The 2016/17 season was the worst in the Springboks’ history. The team won just 11 out of 25 tests, slipped to seventh in world and, with a faltering club game, there were worries of a terminal decline in South African rugby.
Suddenly, a series win over England and a victory over the All Blacks in Hamilton last year, despite ceding 75% possession and 79% territory, has South Africa going into tonight’s Rugby Championship clash with the All Blacks, and October’s World Cup, as serious challengers once more.
Credit for this rapid turnaround goes to Rassie Erasmus. The Springbok director of rugby and head coach inherited a mess from Allister Coetzee. He has since simplified and intensified the Springboks style of play to great effect, and, more importantly, instilled a sense of unity and belief that seemed entirely absent previously.
Finally, South Africa has a diverse, representative squad that the nation can be proud of. The decision to appoint Siya Kolisi to the captaincy boosted television viewing figures by up to 50%, but this growth in popular support would irrelevant if it were not matched by performances. Kolisi is a natural leader and a phenomenal player, and South African rugby once more has the potential to inspire the nation.
Moreover, Erasmus has crucially employed a more open selection policy, allowing for return of influential, experienced figures currently playing abroad, such as Francois Steyn and Duane Vermeulen, who will captain the side in Kolisi’s absence this evening.
This shift in policy has also allowed Faf de Klerk to continue playing Premiership rugby at Sale, a move that has broadened his skill set and generally improved his game. De Klerk is immensely popular in Manchester, where the different rigours of the Premiership have forced him to adapt and develop his game management skills.
Tough and electric in equal measure, the blonde-haired dynamo has tempered his game in subtle ways. New variations of tempo allow more control, and despite the obvious depth at nine, he is absolutely critical to the Springboks’ chances of success. That said, both Herschel Jantijies and Cobus Reinach are class acts.
Behind de Klerk, Willie Le Roux is beautifully balanced, deceptively resilient ball player, capable of offering a second distributive option from 15. Furthermore, Handre Pollard offers an ability to attack the gain line from flyhalf, keeping defense honest. Fast, physical and tough, Pollard can also draw upon traditional South African reserves of accuracy and composure kicking from the tee or hand.
Up front, Gloucester’s Nostert will line up alongside the totemic Eben Etzebeth in one of the world’s best second row pairing, while the dynamic, aggressive Malcom Marx is probably the best hooker around on his day. On the flank, the selection of Kwagga Smith, an incredible athlete, with great reading of game and the ability to play as a link man, is eye catching.
‘Overall, I think he is energetic,” Erasmus said of Smith, who has played just once for the Springboks, against the USA last year.
“He is opportunistic and a ball-player. He has a big engine on him. Obviously, he is not one of the biggest guys but if you take people like Sam Cane and those kinds of players, he matches them size-wise. He has a big heart and is a great team man and I think what he does on attack and defence matches any other player”
It is likely Kolisi, Du Toit and Vermeulen will be the starting backrow come autumn, but Smith’s athleticism could prove influential from the bench. Anybody capable of keeping Francois Louw out of a team is clearly top quality.
Overall the team looks balanced and intimidating again, and, regardless of the result tonight, will be a real threat come Japan.
Written by Joe Ronan