Johannesburg – Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber announced his End-of-Year tour squad earlier on Tuesday, and the biggest surprise is that there was no real surprise at all.
Most changes were injury enforced, and the Bok mentor has decided to stick mostly to the players that have done the business this season for the national team.
He justified his squad selection, saying: “We are two years out from the Rugby World Cup in France, and we have close to 20 Test matches before we start our defence of the title, so every match will count in terms of building confidence and consistency as a group.”
The 32-man squad that Nienaber selected for Wales, Scotland and England in November remains a powerful one, full of veterans and a handful of newer faces that will experience a northern hemisphere tour for the first time.
Losing all of 2020 to Covid-19 has no doubt defined his picks for the tour and many will argue that it is overly cautious. With that in mind, here we look at a handful of selections that made us ponder a few things.
The Tank is back
Sharks tighthead prop Thomas du Toit is arguably in the form of his life currently, and has been a powerful unit at scrum-time and in general play for his union in the United Rugby Championship. His selection is then fully deserved, even if it is due to the ineligibility of Frans Malherbe (neck injury).
Nonetheless, this could have been an opportunity for Nienaber to give an outsider a chance. Carlu Sadie of the Lions, in particular, has been rocking the scrums in that position in recent seasons, but continues to be ignored. If the next generation of players is to be developed, then the 24-year-old could have benefited from being a tour member.
Moerat to slot in at lock
It seems as if Franco Mostert’s days as a pure second-rower are done. The injury to 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year, Pieter-Steph du Toit, seems to have consigned Sous to a utility-role. Not that we should complain. The 30-year-old is a work-horse, the engine upon which the Boks can run off.
This continued selection has opened the door for former Baby Bok Salmaan Moerat to enter the squad as one of two uncapped players for the tour. It is an exciting selection as the Stormers skipper continues to grow as a player and leader. However …
… there is a slight problem.
This is not to cast aspersions on Moerat at all, but with Mostert in the mix, was it really necessary to make that pick within the locks. The second-row also has Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth and Marvin Orie to pick from.
The Boks go to Europe without a recognised blindside flanker, a position both Elrigh Louw of the Bulls and Stormers’ Evan Roos could have easily filled. The Boks need a player in the loose that can get through the grunt-work, especially on the heavy fields of the UK and both Louw and Roos could have provided that in the absence of PSDT. It would have given either or both 21-year-olds the opportunity to get their first taste of international rugby.
Nienaber did say the door remained open for any player to impress, but here it just seems like an opportunity missed.
Who will be the No 1 No 9?
Grant Williams is the other uncapped player that will go on tour with the Boks, mainly due to the injuries to Faf de Klerk and Jaden Hendrikse. Williams will join Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach, who both have 18 Test caps.
The decision will then be who will be the starting scrumhalf. Jantjies seems to be next in line behind De Klerk, but Reinach, based with Montpeliier, understands the conditions and the tour might be the perfect opportunity for him to take the lead at half-back.
The flyhalf stock is thin
The retirement of Morne Steyn reveals a gaping hole in the depth of the Boks at flyhalf. The injury to Johan Goosen has also not helped the situation. Handre Pollard will no doubt remain the incumbent in the No 10 jersey, with Elton Jantjies as his back-up. They are both experienced campaigners, but after them it is hard to think of another world class No 10 that is not currently injured.
Damian Willemse will, in all probability, play back-up should anything untoward happen to them on the three-match tour, but Nienaber has opted to keep the 23-year-old as a utility-back. He will, therefore, and alongside Frans Steyn cover all the backline positions. With two years to go to the World Cup, perhaps Nienaber will eventually decide to settle the young man, and give him a proper chance in the No 10 berth.
Moreover, flyhalf is a position that definitely needs to be worked on as the Boks build towards France.