There’s a fair deal of future-scaping taking place in the mind of Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, which was made evident by the nature of the 36-man squad he named to tour Europe next month.
Being a coach who has embraced innovation in his life, Erasmus seems to be envisioning the future in a way that ensures a measure of continuity leading up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, where he hopes to have a team strong enough to compete with the All Blacks for the championship.
The expectations placed on Erasmus are no greater or less than those placed on any Springbok coach before him during a World Cup year. The mandate is simple, yet treacherously tough: Beat the All Blacks and win the World Cup.
All things being equal, Erasmus could have assembled more than 36 players for his touring squad, which speaks to the depth of South African rugby at the moment. But in rugby, things are hardly ever equal. Erasmus has had to deal with injuries to key players, the recent return of players who haven’t played in months, and the complicated negotiations surrounding the availability of overseas-based players now that the ban has been lifted.
Encouragingly, though, the Super Rugby and Currie Cup tournaments have unearthed exciting young players, who are making strong cases for themselves to get some World Cup action. Competition for most positions in the squad has been brutal, but last Saturday Erasmus named 20 forwards and 16 backs for Test matches against England, France, Scotland and Wales.
Need for speed
This end-of-year tour is somewhat of a precursor to an important year ahead for the Springboks, where scrutiny becomes evermore intense. There’s an abundance of talent in the backline department, but many players lack game time, while Lionel Mapoe, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi are injured.
Debutants Sergeal Petersen and Ruhan Nel have lowered the level of international experience among the backs, while S’bu Nkosi, Embrose Papier, Louis Schreuder, Ivan van Zyl, Cheslin Kolbe and Damian Willemse have only just begun their international careers. But the common factor that might bring the Springbok backline together is pure speed.
Ironically, the lifting of the ban on overseas-based players has complicated Erasmus’ selection plans, resulting in some surprise choices.
Faf De Klerk is not available for the November Tests after trading the tour for the Rugby Championship. Without De Klerk, Erasmus needed to bring in Schreuder to offset the relative inexperience of Van Zyl and Papier. Although he has just one test cap, Schreuder has years of Super Rugby experience to fall back on, and his leadership in the Sharks’ recent march to Currie Cup glory wouldn’t have hurt his cause.
In the absence of Willie Le Roux for part of the tour, Erasmus has chosen to call up Gio Aplon from the Japanese wilderness to inject some much-needed experience among the speedsters in the backline. Erasmus will be hoping Aplon’s creativity and good form in the Japanese Top League will inspire the younger set.
“Everybody fits in. If you play really well, you’re hungry, you’re desperate to play for the Springboks and you’re in form … then everybody is in the mix,” Erasmus said when asked about how he considered overseas-based players’ chances.
“Obviously, I have to get permission and prove why it is that we need overseas-based players over South African players. Is it tactical? Is it a lack of depth or experience? All those things I have to justify every time we make a team selection.”
World Cup around the corner
With just a handful of Test matches to play before the World Cup, Erasmus is desperate to blood key young players. While the debate rages as to whether Aplon is the man to share his vast experience with the young guns, Erasmus’ other choices have stirred another debate, especially with regards to the selection of Schalk Brits (another previously forgotten man) at the expense of Sharks hooker Akker van der Merwe and the exclusion of all the Du Preez brothers.
“It is always good to welcome new players and I’m excited to work with Sergeal and JD (Schickerling). I am sure they will bring a lot of energy into the group. Gio has a lot of experience and Louis has been impressive,” said Erasmus.
When you take a second to appreciate the pedigree the Du Preez brothers come with, and Van Der Merwe’s outstanding form this season, you start understanding the complex nature of Erasmus’ squad selection. How does he give himself the best chance to succeed at next year’s World Cup and maintain a successful record on this tour? How will he broaden the pool of players he has to choose from, with enough Test experience behind them, while developing the right combinations for the World Cup, which kicks off in less than a year?
The Bok coach’s win rate stands at just 50% despite being feted after his team’s epic win over New Zealand in Wellington in September. Erasmus will no doubt see that win rate as a blemish, even as he begins to paint a bigger picture of a new generation of Springboks.
Squad shaped by injuries
Injuries have played their part in shaping this year’s touring squad. Joining Mapoe, Am, and Mapimpi on the sidelines are Tendai Mtawarira and Ross Cronje.
But Erasmus has used this obstacle to improve the quality of his players.
Among the forwards, Erasmus welcomes back Trevor Nyakane (prop) and Lood de Jager (lock) after they missed the entire international season due to injury, while Duane Vermeulen (eighth man) also returns after missing the Rugby Championship.
Expect new combinations in the centre of the backline (after the England Test) and at scrum half. With Le Roux unavailable, Willemse is likely to slot in at fullback against England. Between Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies, there seems to be no opening at fly half for Willemse at this stage.
If Damian de Allende and the modern-day “Pieter Muller-type wrecking ball”, Andre Esterhuizen, stay fit, Willemse may travel to Japan for the World Cup as an option to play at number 10 or number 15. A nice to have in the big international tournament, Willemse played at inside centre in Saturday’s Currie Cup final, and even though Erasmus has been open about his desire to play Willemse at fullback to replace Le Roux when the time comes, don’t expect to see Willemse at number 12 any time soon.
“No, not in the near future between now and the World Cup,” replied Erasmus when asked about the possibility of Willemse playing at inside centre. “We’ve got great inside centres. Damian has got a very good chance of going to the World Cup if he keeps on performing, but I think the nice thing is that if you look four years down the track to have a guy like that who has won three or four Currie Cups and played a few different positions … what a player he [Willemse] would be to take to the next World Cup.”
Erasmus wants a more tactical game from this class of Springboks, not just sheer physicality on the field, as has been the case for many generations. The pre-winter conditions in Europe will require better tactical and territorial kicking from the likes of Pollard and Willemse, backed up by the speed of Nkosi, possibly Kolbe and Aphiwe Dyantyi, who has grown immensely this year.
By the time the World Cup comes around next year, more than half of Erasmus’ squad must be black, something that doesn’t seem to faze the Bok coach given the talent that has been unearthed, along with those such as Aphelele Fassi waiting in the wings. Erasmus sees no shortage of players coming through the system, but what does keep him preoccupied is how to give these young players enough international exposure for them to make a play for the World Cup.
Erasmus will go into this weekend’s match against England at Twickenham with a fair bit of confidence. His strongest starting 15 includes most of those who beat the All Blacks last month and narrowly lost to them in the return leg in Pretoria earlier this month.
But Erasmus the futurist will not be looking back. South African rugby is in a healthy place, albeit still a work in progress, as he casts his mind towards Japan 2019 and beyond.