The Springboks are struggling. They’ve had a tough Rugby Championship, losing to Argentina and dropping to the bottom of the table. They’ve an ageing team with a long injury list and they’ve faced draining political issues at home. It will take good management, tenacity, and more than a little luck for the Boks to win their third Webb-Ellis trophy.
1. Rugby Championship Woes
The Springboks aren’t used to losing to Argentina. They certainly aren’t used to coming last in the Rugby Championship. Neither of these have happened since Argentina came on board in 2012. Both happened in 2015, though. It was a poor effort from South Africa in going down to Los Pumas. They were flattered by the 37-25 scoreline.
It’s been a tough year for the Boks. It might well be made worse by the fact they have taken just one tuneup match prior to the tournament – against Argentina.
2. Old Boys Club?
To hear it said in various Internet forums, the average age of the South African squad is about 4200. It’s actually 28.5, which is reasonable. It is pulled down by a few very young players like Jessie Kriel and Lood de Jager. It is pretty clear that they’ve got some old hands, though. Victor Matfield is is the oldest at 38. The next oldest Jean de Villiers, who, along with Schalk Brits, is 34. In total, there are 14 players over 30. It’s fair to say that Heyneke Meyer has gone with a fair bit of experience.
There are some young’uns, though. The aforementioned Kriel and de Jager are 21 and 22 respectively. Both burst onto the scene this year and made a big difference – Kriel in the 13 jersey and de Jager at lock. All in all, there are eight players under 25.
While those older players might be a risk in terms of longevity for the tournament, I don’t think there will be a great deal of difficulty managing it. They may not even get much of a run. De Villiers is ably covered in the centres by de Allende and Kriel, Matfield by de Jager and Etzebeth. Brits will likely be the third hooker behind the slightly younger du Plessis and Strauss.
I’ll go on record, here. Despite the criticism Meyer has received for selecting from the retirement village, I thnk he may have done very well with what he has. Think de Allende and Kriel, Etzebeth and de Jager on the field – enough to manage against most world teams, with Matfield and de Villiers on the bench to steady the ship. Not a bad situation to be in at all.
3. The Hospital Ward
What may be an issue is the list of walking wounded on the 31 man squad. Of course, Jean de Villiers’ recent return from a broken leg lends credence to the idea that the team is too old. Duane Vermuelen, though, is only 29 and hasn’t played since his recent neck surgery.
With JP Pietersen, Fourie de Preez, Willie le Roux, and Jannie du Plessis on the questionable list, it makes for an interesting issue. Especially when form flanker, Marcel Coetzee wasn’t able to be selected because of his medial ligament injury.
4. Do We Really Need To Go there?
Okay, let’s. Race quotas. Nothing dredges up more emotion and debate among South Africans (and a lot of others) at the moment. The guideline states that there should be seven ‘non-white’ players in each match day 23. That, in turn, means a commensurate number of ‘non-white’ players must be in the 31.
It’s become enough of an issue that one organisation in South Africa have taken the Union to court to have them pulled from the Cup. While that case has been dropped, the spectre of the issue still hangs over the team. South Africa’s first black player capped during the professional era, Kaya Malotona, has weighed in on the issue, as well, indicating he believes better management solutions and development are the answers, rather than the quotas.
Opinions of whether the system is the right way to improve the pathway for coloured people in South Africa are irrelevant to the result, at this point. The concern is whether the talent of the team has been diluted and whether the vehement arguments have taken a toll on the team. Only time will tell.
5. The Pool B Gift
The draw for the tournament may be the saving grace for the Bokke. Pool B is definitely the least competitive for 1st place. South Africa is the only top five team. Scotland come in at number 10 and Samoa at 12. The pool is rounded out with Japan and the USA.
South Africa are expected to go through on top of the pool, followed by either Scotland or Samoa. While Japan and USA will be pressing their own cases, the added competition for second is likely to strengthen the Springboks’ hold on the top spot. Even if they are upset at some point, it is doubtful they’ll fall below second.
The other benefit is pool A’s uncertainty. Irrespective of whether they finish in first or second, the uncertainty of pool A (who are the quarter final pairings) means neither position is necessarily better than the other. So, South Africa can really concentrate on moving through the pool stage.