The Boks leadership will be sharing the load this month
Grizzled veterans Duane Vermeulen and Eben Etzebeth look set to share the load as Springboks captains due to the logistical challenges of the Rugby Championship campaign.
Some coaches favour co-captains as opposed to a single skipper. Last month, Wallabies coach Eddie Jones announced that Michael Hooper and James Slipper would serve as co-captains in the coming Rugby Championship. Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, on the other hand, have taken a different approach during their six-year tenure with the Boks.
Apart from instilling each individual with a sense of leadership and responsibility, they have appointed captains across the respective team units. With regards to the official role, they have consistently backed one player.
That figurative armband has been transferred to as many as eight players over the past six years for various reasons. Injuries, logistical challenges, as well as long-term development have factored into Erasmus and Nienaber’s selections – and, as recent events suggest, the coaches have been largely consistent in their thinking.
Vermeulen will lead the Boks against the Wallabies at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday, while Etzebeth is the favourite to captain the side against the All Blacks in Auckland next week. More on the 2023 Rugby Championship selections, and indeed the coaches’ split-squad plans, in a moment.
Erasmus was forced to tackle a significant logistical problem in the first fortnight of his tenure back in June 2018. The opening match of the season against Wales in Washington DC and the first game of a three-Test series against England were scheduled seven days apart. In an attempt to combat the challenges of travel and fatigue, Erasmus sent a weakened side to play Wales in the USA, and saved his first-choice combination for the all-important battle against England in Johannesburg.
Erasmus was transparent about his selections as well as his plans for the captaincy. The decision to give Pieter-Steph du Toit the job for the one-off against Wales and Siya Kolisi the responsibility for the series against England was announced simultaneously – naming two Springboks captains in one.
Recent selections of Springboks captains
In 2019, Kolisi sustained a serious knee injury and was ruled out of the Rugby Championship. As the Boks approached another difficult fortnight – with games scheduled in Johannesburg and far-flung Wellington – Erasmus asked Etzebeth to lead the team against the Wallabies, while Vermeulen took charge of the team sent ahead to New Zealand.
Later that season, Schalk Brits received a couple of chances to lead the team. The versatile forward didn’t feature for South Africa during the World Cup play-offs in Japan, but was very much a part of the leadership group.
Kolisi contracted Covid in the lead-up to the Test series against the British & Irish Lions in July 2021, and was not available for the warm-up matches. As a result, Erasmus and Nienaber picked Lukhanyo Am – a potential successor to Kolisi beyond 2023 – to lead the South Africa A side against the Lions. When the SA A team faced the Bulls the following week, the experienced Elton Jantjies led the team.
Kolisi returned to spearhead the Boks across the 2021 and 2022 seasons, and was well supported by the likes of Etzebeth, Handré Pollard, and (when available) Vermeulen. When Nienaber picked an experimental combination to play against Wales in the second Test of the series in July 2022, Pollard was named captain.
The Boks sustained a double blow on the eve of the 2023 Rugby Championship with the news that Kolisi and Pollard would miss the tournament due to serious knee injuries. Etzebeth went into the competition under an injury cloud, but has recovered sufficiently from his shoulder ailment and has travelled with an advance party of 13 players to Auckland.
Etzebeth remains a key figure in the Bok set-up, and has taken his game forward since 2019. He has a great deal of experience as a Springboks captain, having led the side during a difficult 2017 season, and in that 2019 clash against Australia in Johannesburg. More recently, he has taken over the captaincy whenever Kolisi has been tactically subbed in the latter stages of a Test.
Leadership with or without captaincy
Unlike Etzebeth, Vermeulen is in the twilight of his playing career. While he commanded his starting place in 2019, and was by all accounts – Kolisi’s included – one of the most influential leaders in the set-up, he is now 37 years old and subject to a lighter workload.
What’s more, Jasper Wiese has emerged as one of the best No 8s in world rugby. The Leicester Tigers star may feature for the Boks’ first-choice team in Auckland next week, and at the World Cup in France thereafter.
What hasn’t changed, however, is Vermeulen’s ability to enhance the performances of those around him. While he produced several influential individual displays for Ulster in the recent United Rugby Championship, his real value to the Irish side – and to the Boks – has been his organisation and communication, especially in the areas such as the maul and breakdown.
Off the field, Vermeulen plays the role of a de facto coach. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that he is being lined up for a coaching role after he retires at the end of the season.
The deep connection between Erasmus, Nienaber and Vermeulen shouldn’t be understated. Over the past 17 years, the three men have worked together at the Cheetahs, Stormers and Boks.
Erasmus knows that Vermeulen has the mindset to inspire the players around him. Nienaber will tell you that few players understand the Bok game plan better, or have a better appreciation for what’s needed to win a Test under today’s laws.
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