England fans might have felt a little bit nervous since the radically overhauled EPS squad was announced last week. Witnessing so many new faces, along with a new coach, in a new training location, is both as exciting as it is daunting. Whatever happens during this “trial” Six Nations, a three test tour to South Africa looms in the summer. But South Africa are about to go through a similar change.
With no current coach in place, the Springboks are currently coasting until someone comes in. A fair majority of the class of 2007 finally hung up their boots following their quarter-final exit to Australia at the RWC 2011, including Victor Matfield and John Smit, who between the two of them have 213 caps. A lengthy list of players are now abroad; Fourie Du Preez, Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Bakkies Botha, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Danie Roussouw, Francois Louw and François Steyn are all plying their trade in Europe or Japan, whilst there are many more the wrong side of 30 but still in South Africa such as CJ Van Der Linde, Jean de Villiers, Butch James, Juan Smith and Odwa Ndungane. Of the 30 man squad who were at the RWC, that’s just less than half at 14.
Matfield has said since his retirement that by playing abroad, South African players would have to be aware they were giving up their chance to represent their country. “There has to be an incentive for guys not opting to go that (overseas) route. It would make it worthwhile for the local guy not going overseas for big money, but then to earn an additional income as a Springbok player.” Whoever the new Springbok coach is, they will have to consider this dilemma thoroughly. Right now, it looks set to be either Gert Smal (the Ireland forwards coach), Rassie Erasmus (who recently left Western Province) or Heyneke Meyer (Blue Bulls).
What the new Springbok coach will have at his disposal though, despite the losses, is a depth of talent. In a sense, the replacements are already there. Francois Hougaard has been biding his time to replace Fourie du Preez both for the Bulls and South Africa. Andries Bekker’s path for selection will no longer be blocked by Botha & Matfield. Juan de Jongh has been maturing rapidly as an international star, and now has his chance with Jaque Fourie in Japan.
South Africa as ever is also developing young talent that, on the back of a strong Super Rugby season, could be involved come the June tests with England. Johann Sadie, picked out by SA Rugby Magazine as one of the men “to lead SA’s rugby revolution”, is a centre who moved this summer from the Stormers to the Bulls and could well make his debut in June. 22 year old Sias Ebersohn made waves at fly-half for the Cheetahs, as did Elton Jantjies during the recent Currie Cup success with the Lions. There is, as ever with South Africa, a whole range of promising back row players ready to step up in Joshua Strauss, Ashley Johnson and Keegan Daniel to name just three, although that area looks fairly set with Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brüssow and Willem Alberts.
The obvious problem area is the second row, where following nearly a decade of consistency from Botha & Matfield, Bekker will be potentially partnered by Flip Van Der Merwe of the Bulls in a new unit. With so much experience now gone, Bekker is essential to South Africa’s progress over the next four years, and part of a new leadership group that will include Hougaard, de Jongh, Pat Lambie, Bismarck du Plessis and the new captain, Burger. If the new Springbok coach can keep that unit together and playing consistently over the next four years, then South Africa will be a serious force in 2015.
by Ben Coles
South Africa side to play England in Durban on June 9th:
1. Tendai Mtawaria, 2. Bismarck du Plessis (vc), 3. Jannie du Plessis, 4. Andries Bekker, 5. Flip Van Der Merwe, 6. Schalk Burger (c), 7. Heinrich Brüssow, 8. Willem Alberts, 9. Francois Hougaard, 10. Morné Steyn, 11. JP Pietersen, 12. Juan de Jongh, 13. Johann Sadie, 14. Gio Aplon, 15. Pat Lambie.