Counter-attack specialists amplify South Africa’s threat says Jon Cardinelli
Springboks squad analysis: An in-depth look at what the Lions can expect
South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber has included Cheslin Kolbe, Aphelele Fassi, Rosko Specman and several other danger men in his 46-man Springboks squad with the intent of maximising turnover ball against an otherwise watertight British & Irish Lions 2021 defence.
What kind of threat will the Lions pose across three epic Tests? South Africans have been pondering this question since Warren Gatland unveiled his Lions squad last month.
No Billy Vunipola? No Kyle Sinckler? These are the omissions that have left many – including several Springbok players and coaches – scratching their heads.
Sinckler was recently added to the Lions group in the wake of Andrew Porter’s injury. On this side of the world, many believe that Sinckler, a powerful prop with the hands of an inside back, should have been selected from the start.
What can be read into the selections of players like Sam Simmonds – the explosive Exeter Chiefs No 8? One senior Bok felt that it pointed to a more expansive approach by the tourists.
Meanwhile, there has been plenty of talk about the game plan that netted the Boks the 2019 Rugby World Cup. While some have labelled it one-dimensional and overly reliant on set-piece supremacy, more informed commentators have explained how those forward and kicking strategies create situations for players like Kolbe to thrive.
Which brings us to the composition of the latest Bok squad. The selections speak to the approach that proved so effective in 2019, and suggest that the coaches are already planning for a scenario in which their star player – who recently won the Champions Cup with Toulouse – is unavailable due to injury.
More on that in a moment. When breaking down the South Africa squad, one has to begin up front.
Springboks squad analysis
The tight five
Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will be hoping for some luck on the injury front over the next few months. Two of their four World Cup-winning locks – Lood de Jager and RG Snyman – are still recovering from long-term injuries. It remains to be seen if the duo will be ready for the first Test.
The Boks may well start Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert against the Lions – and if the scenario demands it, they will move Pieter-Steph du Toit from blindside flank to No 5 lock. They’re short on experienced alternatives, as Marvin Orie has only three Tests to his name while Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg is yet to make his debut.
Further injury setbacks over the next month or so – as well as some bad news regarding De Jager and Snyman’s progress – could seriously compromise their plans at the lineout.
The Boks are better stocked in the front row. Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe all starred for South Africa at RWC 2019, and have been the form front row over the course of the 2021 South African domestic season.
Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch remain important cogs in the Bok machine – given their strength over the ball and in open play.
Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira has retired and so the Boks will go into the series against the Lions with only one of the looseheads – Kitshoff – that featured at the World Cup. Ox Nche has made a big impact for the Sharks this season, both at the scrums and breakdowns.
That said, the inclusion of Sale Sharks prop Coenie Oosthuizen suggests that the coaches have moved for an experienced alternative to Kitshoff (Oosthuizen boasts 30 caps to Nche’s one).
No doubt that Oosthuizen’s experience of packing against northern hemisphere opponents on a regular basis will be viewed as an asset ahead of a showdown with the Lions.
The back row
Duane Vermeulen – Man of the Match in the 2019 World Cup final and the 2020 SA Rugby Player of the Year – sustained a serious ankle injury while on duty for the Bulls last Friday. Here in South Africa, the nation is holding its breath as the No 8 undergoes a series of tests to determine the severity and nature of the ailment.
Vermeulen’s importance within the Bok set-up cannot be overstated. Outside of his impact as a ball-carrier and defender, he is heavily involved in the planning and execution of the team’s lineouts and mauls. A hulk of a man, Vermeulen consistently wins the race to the rucks and forces big turnovers for his team.
South Africa are spoiled for choice in the loose forward department. They may well go on to beat the Lions if Vermeulen is ruled out – and yet it’s fair to say that their task will be much harder in his absence.
The good news for the Boks is that Siya Kolisi and Du Toit are starting to find form after their respective injury lay-offs. Both will have big roles to play at the collisions and breakdowns. The Boks will be looking to force the Lions off the ball. Thereafter, they will unleash their backs against an unprepared defence.
Nienaber has included specialist fetchers such as Kwagga Smith and Marco van Staden. The Du Preez twins are also very strong over the ball, and certainly have the ability to amplify a team’s attacking threat via a well-timed offload in contact. Leicester No 8 Jasper Wiese could offer something even more explosive and athletic.
Marcell Coetzee made a successful return to South African rugby when he produced an influential performance for the Bulls against the Stormers last Friday. While he has been omitted from the 46-man group – due to what Erasmus has cited as a lack of game time over the past three months – he may yet feature against the Lions.
It’s an encouraging thought for the hosts given that Coetzee can cover all three loose-forward positions. A player of Coetzee’s skills and experience would boost the ‘Bomb Squad’ – the name given to the South African bench that made such an impact at the recent World Cup.
The Boks didn’t get enough credit at the tournament in Japan for their ability to switch between a pragmatic and an expansive game plan. Thanks to a powerful scrummaging performance by the forwards against England in the final, the backs had more space to operate.
South Africa took some great decisions to move the ball wide, and when they forced a turnover, they made it count. Both tries were scored from turnover ball.
Faf de Klerk has continued to take his all-round game forward while on duty for Sale Sharks. Handré Pollard recently made a successful return from a serious knee injury, and helped Montpellier to win the European Challenge Cup title.
Both half-backs enjoy a fast-paced game, yet both realise what it takes to win a war of attrition such as a cup final. The decision-making of the duo, and indeed that of the entire half-back group, will be key when the Lions come to town.
This is why Morné Steyn has got the nod for that third fly-half berth. The 36-year-old has looked every bit the general for the Bulls in a domestic season that’s yielded Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup titles. If the Boks do suffer a double setback, losing Pollard as well as second-choice fly-half Elton Jantjies, they will have a world-class game manager and goalkicker waiting in the wings.
Like De Klerk, Damian de Allende has continued to impress since winning the 2019 World Cup with the Boks. One would expect the Munster centre to resume a successful midfield partnership with Lukhanyo Am, another key player as far as the Bok game plan is concerned.
Frans Steyn and his namesake Morné may have the chance to face the Lions for the second time in their careers. A starting full-back in 2009, Frans may occupy a utility role in 2021, coming off the bench and providing options at fly-half, centre and full-back.
Erasmus has insisted that the player’s versatility allowed the Boks to field a six-two split on the bench at the World Cup, and it wouldn’t surprise to see the same strategy employed in the coming Lions series. Damian Willemse is another player who has the potential to cover all of those positions from the bench.
Jesse Kriel has spoken about his desire to reclaim a spot in the match-day squad, while Wandisile Simelane has been pushing hard for an opportunity over the past two seasons. And if Cornal Hendricks manages to settle a dispute with SA Rugby – the details of which have yet to be fully disclosed – he may well come into the frame at a later stage.
Hendricks was a well established sevens player before he made his debut for the Boks in 2014. After recovering from a serious heart condition, he returned to the game and eventually shifted from wing to inside-centre for the Bulls.
The back three
The Lions will have their eye on Cheslin Kolbe following his exploits for the Boks at the World Cup and his recent successes for Toulouse. They would do well, however, to consider the other individual threats – and the manner in which the Bok team works to put these players into space.
Whoever wins the race to the high ball will have the opportunity to rush as a less organised defensive line. The Boks improved in this area across the 2019 season, but have since admitted that there is room for improvement. Selections in the current squad, of course, speak to an ambition to play a more balanced game and to capitalise on turnover ball.
Players like Willie le Roux, Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi need no introduction. S’bu Nkosi is one of the finest players under the high ball in South Africa. Yaw Penxe, who has been lauded by Nienaber and Erasmus due to his anticipation in this area, is another strong candidate.
The Sharks were the form side in the 2020 Super Rugby tournament before the Covid-19 outbreak brought the competition to a halt. Much of the Durban-based side’s success was down to their ability to transition from defence to attack – and in Aphelele Fassi they had a player who thrived in broken-field situations.
Fassi has been name-checked by Nienaber at various stages over the past two years, and it seems a matter of when rather than if he will get his opportunity in the green and gold jersey. In an ideal world, Fassi would have played 11 or 12 Tests in 2020 and would have gone into the Lions series with a season of experience. Because of Covid-19, however, Fassi may only get his first taste of international rugby against Georgia next month.
The selection of Rosko Specman may have raised a few eyebrows. A few months ago, the 32-year-old appeared set to join the South African sevens side at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Plans have changed, and Specman – who burned white hot for the Cheetahs over the course of the South African season, and has since been drafted into the Stormers set-up in order to receive more game time – is being groomed as an alternative to Kolbe at the Boks.
One would hope that all the star players – on both teams – remain fit and available in the lead-up to the Test series, and that several big names recover in time to feature.
The reality, of course, is that rugby is a collision sport. There may be further losses in personnel before the Test series commences.
With that said, it appears as if Nienaber and Erasmus have covered all their bases and have planned for every eventuality. There is a good blend of skills across the 46-man group, and a fine balance between youth and experience.
Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.