In the second instalment of a six-part series, Jon Cardinelli highlights the Springboks’ quality in depth and where the world champions can improve in the next four-year cycle.
Allister Coetzee chopped and changed the midfield combination throughout his two-year tenure with the Boks. By the time Rassie Erasmus returned to the set-up in early 2018, there was a crisis at No 12 and no obvious solution regarding a first-choice centre partnership.
Erasmus backed Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am – despite the latter’s inexperience at Test level– as his preferred combination from the first series against England in 2018. In the same period, he gave an alternative pairing in Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel a chance to compete at international level.
Frans Steyn was initially selected for that series against England, but did not feature for the Boks at all in the 2018 season due to club-related issues. The veteran added value when he eventually returned in 2019, and his versatility ultimately enabled the Boks to favour a six-two split on the bench at the World Cup.
Will anything change over the next four years? Let’s look at the inside centre options first.
De Allende was one of the unsung heroes at the tournament in Japan, and indeed one of the most improved players of the South African season. He should be the first-choice No 12 when the 2020 Test season eventually gets under way.
|NO 12||NO 13|
|2019 WORLD CUP SQUAD MEMBERS||DAMIAN DE ALLENDE (47), FRANS STEYN (67)||LUKHANYO AM (15), JESSE KRIEL (46)|
|OTHER SQUAD MEMBERS 2018-2019||ANDRE ESTERHUIZEN (8)||LIONEL MAPOE (14)|
|POSSIBLE BOLTERS||RUHAN NEL, WANDISILE SIMELANE|
*Test caps in brackets
Steyn (32) has expressed his desire to face the British & Irish Lions in 2021. Beyond that he may well call it quits.
It’s something for Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber to ponder in the next year or so. Will Esterhuizen, who is leaving the Sharks for Harlequins, move ahead in the queue post-2021? Will forgotten men such as Jan Serfontein, Francois Venter and Rohan Janse van Rensburg receive a recall? Will we see Handre Pollard filling the void, as the coaches look to kill two birds with one stone by developing another inside centre option and giving one or two other flyhalves an extended run?
Perhaps we need to look at the above list of questions and conclude that the coaches won’t want for choices.
Am has developed into one of the best players in Test rugby. The Boks are fortunate to possess two world-class outside centres, though, in Am and Kriel. The latter hasn’t received enough credit for his part in the Boks’ resurgence over the past two years and will certainly add value going forward.
The question that needs to be answered is who the Boks will depend on when both Am and Kriel are unavailable.
When Kriel sustained a tournament-ending injury at the World Cup, Erasmus opted to replace him in the squad with Damian Willemse, a utility back with international experience at flyhalf and fullback. When asked who would cover Am in the event of further injuries, Erasmus explained that De Allende was versatile enough to start at No 13.
Going forward, however, the Boks would do well to identify and develop some bona fide alternatives at No 13. Ruhan Nel was a part of the wider squad in 2018, but didn’t play. Wandisile Simelane made an explosive impression for the Junior Boks in 2018 and the Lions in 2019, but has been used sparingly by his franchise in 2020.
The first- and second-string combinations are good enough to see the Boks through to the Lions series. That said, it will be fascinating to see how the coaches manage the fringe players and how they bring the younger players through with perhaps a view to the 2023 World Cup.
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