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Bismarck

Boks post-Champs: Our depth study

News24
09 Oct 2018, 14:37 GMT+10

Cape Town - The Springboks are some way yet from the finished article ... that's plainly obvious when you examine their still patchy results.

But a major feature of Rassie Erasmus's tenure as head coach so far is how hard it is to dispute his patient, diligent assembly of suitable depth - premier foes the All Blacks will probably attest to this - for an earnest onslaught on the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Erasmus hasn't got everything right in selection (something he has frequently, openly admitted) but he has generally been varied and creative in his choices, a trend that continued through the just-completed Rugby Championship where the Boks finished deserved runners-up for the first time since 2014.

Gradually, yet noticeably, he has created stiff competition in the majority of positions, only increasing the appetite across his broader squad and going a long way to eliminating complacency and the phenomenon of "passengers".

Here is my appraisal, 10 matches into his tenure, of where the Boks stand as the national team builds capacity, as they say, for the assault on the Webb Ellis Cup late next year.

Back three:

This continues to be an area of perhaps most soaring growth, considering how it had been such an Achilles heel of the previous, Allister Coetzee-led regime.

Willie le Roux is back as the clear first-choice at fullback, his deft touches and "libero" qualities vital to any element of surprise the Boks wish to engineer. At the same time, he was extremely solid in defensive aspects of the Loftus thriller against NZ.

But that dazzling stepper Damian Willemse seems set for some generous game-time in the No 15 berth on the European tour in his appealing capacity as a utility player and, frankly, has the potential to set the cat among the pigeons in the spot. Remember that Warrick Gelant will resurface from injury as well.

As for the wings, the Boks are unrecognisable this year ... and all for the better.

While they are perhaps still a little shy on the tonnage front (sheer brawn remains extremely useful close to the try-line, both offensively and in defence), there is renewed firepower, plus pugnacious spirit, on both sides of the touchline for the Boks.

Aphiwe Dyantyi's Test development only gathers pace, Cheslin Kolbe has been a picture of determination and energy despite his physical challenges, and the already decently-blooded S'bu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi "bubble under" very conveniently indeed.

At some point, reasonably forgotten Ruan Combrinck or one or two others could push anew for World Cup squad selection as well.

Resource rating: Very good.

Midfield:

The situation at centre is tempered by the fact that there is still no single, absolutely unequivocal "must pick"; we aren't talking Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie, for example, for routine level of international menace.

But one of the best aspects of the Loftus epic against the All Blacks, dominated by SA for lengthy periods, was how pleasingly Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel resurrected the promise they first showed as a combo under Heyneke Meyer's tutelage some three years ago.

Keep that up on the end-of-year tour and they will glue themselves in afresh as the premier alliance.

Otherwise, Lukhanyo Am in the outside berth and big Andre Esterhuizen one berth closer in have had their moments, without truly setting the world alight yet; they'll nevertheless remain handily thereabouts.

Other options do exist: Jan Serfontein is finally back playing again for Montpellier and the 25-year-old, assuming he gets his confidence and best conditioning back, is well capable of adding substantially to his current tally of 35 Bok caps (especially with his candidacy at both 12 and 13).

Sturdy former Sevens star Ruhan Nel was drawn a bit closer to plans (psst, he could still be a good Test wing as well), and there's still that enduringly appealing possibility of Handre Pollard having a crack at inside centre for his country at some point ...

Resource rating: Reasonable.

Nines and tens:

The turnaround in the second half of the Championship programme, after his place-kicking and other shortcomings earlier, by Pollard was a heart-warming feature of the Bok confirmation of "silver" in the tournament.

He looked a rejuvenated, more assertive character in all areas, not least his willingness to attack the gain-line with intent with ball in hand.

The right-footer now seems fairly cast in stone for the No 10 jersey, at least for the first couple of Euro tour fixtures, although Erasmus clearly retains quite strong faith in Elton Jantjies and the gifted but fickle customer has also produced some decent touches of late when given a gallop.

No less importantly, Loftus seemed to provide evidence of a maturing Faf de Klerk, tactically speaking, at scrumhalf.

For general effervescence, of course, De Klerk's qualities were not in doubt and he is some way clear as top dog at No 9.

But that is also a problem: we remain so little the wiser as to who his worthiest back-up in the key role is, given the glaring lack of time on the Test park provided to any of the immediate reserve personnel in the position.

Resource rating: Good.

Loose forwards:

With a bit of luck, globetrotting Duane Vermeulen, a colossus of the England series win, will play more Tests than he doesn't from here, in the gradual lead-up to RWC.

He remains a vital heavyweight pack figure, although all of Warren Whiteley, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and adaptable Francois Louw had periods of Championship promise at eight in his absence.

The flank situation, meanwhile, is greatly enhanced by the recent brilliance of captain Siya Kolisi and, particularly, Pieter-Steph du Toit: why would you presently want to even consider breaking up the budding alliance of the former at No 6 and the latter at No 7?

Their respective Championship stats (not that those are be-all and end-all, of course) were glowing, and both have the perfect attributes to shine once more on the likely heavier pitches of the "north" shortly.

The physical but occasionally one-dimensional Du Preez twins, Dan and currently injured Jean-Luc, may have lost a bit of ground for the moment, but there's robust young Marco van Staden slowly being groomed as an open-side factor, and sooner rather than later it would be great to see Ulster-based Marcell Coetzee resurface in green and gold, wouldn't it?

Resource rating: Very good.

Locks:

If they haven't already, South Africans should breathe a big sigh of relief over how satisfyingly Eben Etzebeth, still the main man of the second row, readjusted to Test life during the Championship after his lengthy - sometimes very worrisomely so - shoulder injury.

He is an incredible athlete, for his ability to so quickly look as though he has never been away, and must be carefully managed in the lead-up to the World Cup.

As his starting partner for all but one match in the competition, Franco Mostert worked his socks off and is another who seemingly just doesn't know the word "fatigue".

But the next tier at lock is rosy as well: lanky, combative RG Snyman impressed both against England and then in "supersub" appearances in the Championship, and keep in mind that Du Toit stays a very strong option at five in the (unlikely right now) event there is a change of heart over his flank credentials.

Proven, 36-cap Lood de Jager will soon enough get back on the pecking order following injury rehab, too: a star of the 2015 World Cup, he remains only 25 and can play in either second-row shirt.

Resource rating: Excellent.

Front row:

There's a hearteningly settled look about the top two options at hooker, where strongman Malcolm Marx is backed up by the smaller but just as committed and tigerish Bongi Mbonambi.

Yes, the lineout throwing department - in both cases - still requires some fine-tuning (an area Adriaan Strauss used to be so pinpoint in) but otherwise the general chore is in fine hands, especially with veteran French-based Bismarck du Plessis still lurking out there. He may yet leapfrog the likes of Akker van der Merwe and Schalk Brits as RWC juices begin to flow?

On the loosehead side of the prop cupboard, the Steven Kitshoff versus Tendai Mtawarira battle stays compelling and tight; few others seem close to a look-in.

But if you had one gripe about the tighthead berth, it would be that there are several reasonably appealing customers vying for the main status, but with no definite standout at this juncture.

The Bok scrum was, broadly speaking, stable but not often genuinely dominating during the Championship, which some might say is simply another sign that the No 3 "anchorman" role is not fully settled.

Frans Malherbe is the incumbent, and he started all six Championship Tests, although all of Wilco Louw, Vincent Koch, Thomas du Toit (adaptable factor) and now fit-again Coenie Oosthuizen are breathing down his neck.

Remember also that Trevor Nyakane was making some fairly eye-opening strides in his conversion to the "right shoulder" side of the scrum before he got crocked.

Resource rating: Very good.

*Follow our chief writer: @RobHouwing

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