The move to start Canan Moodie at No 13 has been on the cards for some time. Since joining the wider Springbok training group in July 2022, the youngster has been marked by Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber as a centre who can do a job on the wing.

Until now, the coaches haven’t had to force the issue. But with Lukhanyo Am still recovering from a serious knee injury, Jesse Kriel has moved into that crucial No 13 position, and South Africa have found themselves somewhat exposed regarding a third alternative. As a result, the plan to move Moodie into one of the most important positions in the South African system has been fast-tracked. 

What does Moodie’s selection for the clash against the All Blacks this Friday tell us about the coaches’ faith in his ability, and indeed their plans for him at the World Cup in France? Can he become a superstar centre?

Nienaber could have played it safe by starting Kriel or Damian de Allende at No 13. He could have backed a veteran for the friendly against the All Blacks – who will pose significant attacking threats in the wider channels – and then trial Moodie in the physical albeit less tactically demanding World Cup pool matches against Romania and Tonga.

Moodie’s credentials as a superstar centre in the making

The recent selection at No 13 confirms, however, that Nienaber believes in Moodie, and that he needs answers regarding the player’s readiness for the role sooner rather than later. 

The worse-case scenario sees Am failing to recover from his injury in time to travel to the World Cup, and Kriel picking up a niggle or worse over the next few weeks. If both are unavailable, the coaches need to know whether Moodie is up to the task of starting at No 13 against Scotland and Ireland in the pool phase, and potentially a World Cup playoff.

It’s a tough ask to start a big match at No 13, and the New Zealanders themselves have taken a couple of seasons to bring Rieko Ioane through in that position. Then again, so many great players have made a successful transition from the wing to the midfield over the years – Tana Umaga, Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers to name a few. Am and Kriel began their respective careers in the back three before receiving the chance to wear the No 13 jersey.

Some will continue to question the decision, though, on the basis that Moodie is a relative newcomer to the top-flight. To say his rise has been meteoric would be an understatement.

Unlike many of his Bok teammates, Moodie didn’t represent his province at the U18 Craven Week – the national tournament that showcases the best of South Africa’s schoolboy talent. In fact, Moodie played no rugby at all during his last year at school due to the pandemic. 

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Moodie with the Bulls (Getty Images)

At the time of the 2019 World Cup, Moodie was just another fan. He celebrated the Boks’ 32-12 win against England in the final with his friends and family, never dreaming that he would be travelling to the next World Cup in France.

Jake White has a reputation for spotting and backing young talent – having selected a then 19-year-old Frans Steyn for the Boks’ tour to Ireland and England in 2006, and then starting Steyn at No 12 in the 2007 World Cup final. 

White didn’t hesitate to back Moodie after the gifted yet deceptively tough player arrived at the Bulls. Moodie moved through the ranks, and performed consistently for the senior side in the United Rugby Championship. The Bulls scored one of their greatest wins against Leinster in the 2022 semi-final, and on that occasion, Moodie proved that he had the temperament as well as the skill to succeed at the highest level.

Fledgling steps in Tests

That said, many reporters were surprised when they attended a Bok training session in July 2022 and found Moodie – who was nursing an injury at that stage – in the mix. In spite of the Boks’ back-three riches –  Cheslin Kolbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Makazole Mapimpi, Wille le Roux and Damian Willemse – Nienaber was determined to integrate Moodie ahead of the 2023 World Cup. 

Nienaber surprised again when he selected Moodie to start on debut in the must-win clash against the Wallabies in Sydney. The wing soared to beat opposite number Marika Koroibete to a well-aimed box kick, and then raced away to score. The Boks went on to claim their first win in Sydney in nearly three decades.

When you speak to Moodie, he gives you the impression that he’s still trying to process his rise to the top. He’s loving the opportunity to rub shoulders with Am, Willie le Roux and others – players he watched win the World Cup four years ago.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d be in the mix during a World Cup year,” he told me recently. “ In early 2022, all I wanted was to be a regular in the Bulls team.”

Behind the happy-go-lucky demeanour, there’s a fierce competitive streak that has made him a favourite of both White and Nienaber. He may be blessed with natural size and athletic ability, but it’s his vision and inner steel that sets him apart. 

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Posing with Jacques Nienaber and Siya Kolisi (AFP/Getty Images)

Moodie’s coaches like to tell the story about when he sustained a heavy knock in the act of scoring a try for the South African U20s. He went onto to complete the game, and later discovered that he had broken his jaw. He never stops working, in a training session or during a match. 

That much was evident in the recent fixture against Wales in Cardiff, where a busy evening culminated in an intercept try. His good mate Arendse may have the better strike rate, but he’s catching up, having scored four tries in seven Tests.

What’s needed to become a superstar centre

Does he have the organisational skills to play the most demanding defensive position on the field? The person most qualified to answer that question is the Bok head coach. 

Nienaber’s defensive system won the Boks the 2019 World Cup. Since becoming the Bok head coach in 2020, he has continued to run the defence and plot everything down to the last detail. 

Nienaber wouldn’t back Moodie to run that system in a big match unless he was absolutely convinced that the player had the potential to be a success.

Moodie’s success at Twickenham will, of course, be shaped by other factors. The Boks can’t allow the All Blacks to dictate the tempo of the game, as they did in the recent meeting in Auckland. The South African forwards have to work harder to put the backs on the front foot – on defence as well as attack.

It will take time for a new 10-12-13 combination to find its feet. You’d expect the All Blacks to target Manie Libbok, André Esterhuizen and Moodie this Friday, but those individuals, and indeed the combination, certainly have the potential to give as good as they get.

The Boks will be desperate to win this match, having lost to the All Blacks in Auckland earlier this year. At the very least, Nienaber will receive some answers regarding Moodie’s readiness to become a superstar centre.

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