South Africa have been deprived of many of their big-name players for this year’s Rugby Championship through both injury and club duties, reflected in coach Heynecke Meyer’s squad announcement last week. The likes of Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Frans Steyn and Schalk Burger remain side-lined, and JP Pietersen and Andries Bekker were unavailable for selection due to commitments with their Japanese club sides. The good news for the Springboks is that their continued absence has allowed several promising young players the chance to impress in the fabled green jersey. The likes of JJ Engelbrecht and Jan Serfontein have made waves in midfield, while Cheetahs playmaker Willie Le Roux has shown brief signs of solving the Boks’ full-back conundrum.
Meyer’s most controversial selection was undoubtedly his decision to recall thirty-one year old scrum-half Fourie Du Preez (currently plying his trade with Japanese outfit Suntory Sungoliath), once regarded as world rugby’s top nine, after a two-year absence from the national team. Du Preez’s recall has sparked much debate among the wider rugby world, particularly as he will only be available for home tests – for fixtures outside South Africa, Piet Van Zyl will fill the vacant scrum-half berth in the squad. Despite his obvious prowess and test-match experience, Du Preez has not competed at anything approaching the level of the Rugby Championship throughout the duration of his international exile, and is likely only to play a bit-part role, deputising for Ruan Pienaar.
There were also recalls for number eight Duane Vermeulen and seasoned prop Gurthro Steenkamp. Vermeulen, who last played for the Boks almost a year ago, was arguably their standout performer in last year’s tournament, and should offer added dynamism to a bruising pack.
The Springboks will be typically impressive in the tight, with the likes of Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, the Du Plessis brothers (prop Jannie and hooker Bismarck) and Willem Alberts contributing to a truly monstrous eight. Twenty-one year old Eben Etzebeth has stepped up from junior level to command the South African second row, and gone some way to filling the sizeable void left by the retiring Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. Etzebeth relishes the abrasive, physical aspect of the game (check out the Youtube clip of him dumping the aforementioned Bismarck Du Plessis on his backside), but more experienced and wily opponents may take advantage of his confrontational nature and decidedly short fuse.
In the back row, Alberts and Vermeulen offer solid carrying options in the loose, but are equally suited to the “up-the-jumper” style of rugby that the Boks may revert to. Francois Louw will fill the role of “fetcher”, and will have to be at his snaffling best when facing the likes of Richie McCaw and Michael Hooper. Crucially, though, Louw can offer a more versatile skill set than many of his back-row colleagues, and can thus adapt to a variety of Meyer’s potential game plans.
South Africa have arguably failed to find correct, long-term replacements for the retiring class of 2007. Despite never failing to field a strong team, the Boks have yet to draw near the heights scaled by Percy Montgomery, John Smit, Matfield and co. The terms “stop-gap” and “adequate” have been buzzwords for a team that should seriously challenge for the Rugby Championship title year on year.
The side holds promise for the future, but it remains inexperienced, and the backline will struggle against the attacking capabilities of New Zealand and Australia.
Player To Watch: Jan Serfontein
The twenty year-old Bulls centre made his Springbok debut back in June, facing Italy, Scotland and Samoa in the inaugural quadrangular tournament. His impressive all-round ability to combine uncompromising physical play with some delightful running lines earned him last year’s IRB Junior Player of the Year award, and has sparked comparisons between the youngster and the great Danie Gerber, who plied his trade in South African midfield from 1980-1992. At six-foot-two inches tall, and tipping the scales at just shy of one-hundred kilograms, Serfontein has the power to make yards and line breaks in games where go-forward and territory will be all-important. He also possesses an impressive turn of pace, and a devastating right-to-left sidestep, which decimated defences a year ago in the Junior World Championship. He has continued to impress for the Bulls in this season’s Super 15, and has been rightly earmarked for great things on the international stage.
Serfontein will have an experienced head partnering him in the centres in the form of captain Jean de Villiers, who is approaching the ninety-cap mark for his country. Having just three test appearances, the youngster will need to adjust quickly and step up to face some of the game’s top midfield men. This tournament could be the making of him.
This year’s Rugby Championship may well be written off in the name of development – a number of breakthrough internationals are beginning to lay claim to starting berths – with anything above third place regarded as a bonus. It is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that South African rugby has stagnated over the past season or two, despite some decent results, and obvious strength in depth. This depth has carried them through some difficult injury-stricken periods, where they have been shorn of their top players, but it is not of the same quality as that of the All Blacks or the Wallabies.
Next year, when the likes of Serfontein and his emerging colleagues have gained more experience at test-match level, and developed further at the top, we should see the return of the Springboks to the title contest. Certainly, their pack is more than a match for that of any test side, and it is likely that they will try and drag games into tight, forward-orientated affairs rather than risk the open, expansive play more suited to the New Zealand and Australian backlines.
Forwards: Jannie du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Bismarck du Plessis, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Adriaan Strauss, Eben Etzebeth, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Franco van der Merwe, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen
Backs: Fourie du Preez (SA Tests only), Ruan Pienaar, Jano Vermaak, Piet van Zyl (Overseas Tests), Pat Lambie, Morné Steyn, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers (c), JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Bryan Habana, Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images