Pieter de Villiers has announced a 49 man training squad for the World Cup, including several uncapped players: Dean Greyling, Werner Kruger and Coenie Oosthuizen, fly-half Elton Jantjies, and back-rowers Ashley Johnson and Duane Vermeulen.
First up, it is important to acknowledge when discussing the South African World Cup squad that in terms of depth, no other nation possesses the same amount of quality. Aiming to become the first team to ever win the World Cup three times, whatever side Peter de Villiers puts out, perhaps will never measure up to the stellar team of 2007.
South Africa in 2007 were a team at their peak, they had the youthful exuberance of Francois Steyn, JP Pietersen and the du Plessis brothers Bismarck and Jannie moulded together with experienced heads like John Smit, Percy Montgomery, Bob Skinstad and Victor Matfield. Many of the side that defeated England in the Stade de France to lift the trophy in 2007 remain in contention for this year’s tournament, but are not the force of yesteryear.
Smit’s continuation of the side as captain is questionable, whilst in this year’s Super Rugby competition the best lineout pairing of the last five years in Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield have been blunted, as much by age as their diminishing presence on the rugby field. In fact, the appalling form of the Blue Bulls all season has cast an ominous shadow over South Africa’s preparations for the World Cup.
Morne Steyn has been off colour, along with Wynand Olivier, Danie Roussouw and Gurthro Steenkamp, though the latter has suffered from persistent injuries throughout this year’s campaign. Lingering doubts remain over the scrum-half, number eight and back row positions, but unlike other countries, this is where the Springboks incredible pool of talent shines through.
They have world class centers in Juan de Jongh, Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers (all from the Stormers), and in the back three Bryan Habana may not be as lethal as four years ago, but no one works harder on the wing than him. Combine his experience with the lightning pace of Gio Aplon, and one of JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo, Bjorn Basson or Gerhard Van Der Heever, and you have a menacing back three. The back-row also has a quantity of talent to make every other nation go green eyed. Top players like Ashley Johnson, Keegan Daniel, Joshua Strauss and Duane Vermuelen would walk into other national sides, yet they are no were near the standard of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Ryan Kankowski.
Given Ruan Pienaar’s absence from South African rugby, churning out match-winning performance after match-winning performance for Ulster in the Celtic League and Heineken Cup, no scrum-half has seriously put their hand up. Ricky Januarie is too old, Dewald Duvenhage too young, Fourie Du Preez a ghost of his former self. Except Sarel Pretorious from the Cheetahs, who bizarrely hasn’t made the squad.
South Africa’s Preliminary Rugby World Cup Squad:
Forwards: John Smit (captain), Willem Alberts, Andries Bekker, Bakkies Botha, BJ Botha, Heinrich Brussow, Schalk Burger, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Dean Greyling, Alistair Hargreaves, Ashley Johnson, Ryan Kankowski, Werner Kruger, Francois Louw, Victor Matfield, Tendai Mtawarira, Johann Muller, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Danie Rossouw, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies, Gurthro Steenkamp, Deon Stegmann, Adriaan Strauss, Flip van der Merwe, Duane Vermeulen.
Backs: Gio Aplon, Bjorn Basson, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, Francois Hougaard, Adrian Jacobs, Butch James, Elton Jantjies, Ricky Januarie, Zane Kirchner, Patrick Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, Wynand Olivier, Ruan Pienaar, JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn, Morne Steyn.
Here would be my team for South Africa’s first game in New Zealand against Wales:
1. Gurthro Steenkamp
2. Bismarck du Plessis
3. Jannie du Plessis
4. Bakkies Botha
5. Victor Matfield (c)
6. Schalk Burger
7. Juan Smith
8. Ryan Kankowski
9. Ruan Pienaar
10. Patrick Lambie
11. Bryan Habana
12. Jean de Villiers
13. Jaque Fourie
14. Gio Aplon
15. Francois Steyn
by Ben Coles