Sun, 12 Jul 2020

2020: Last year in which 'home' Boks stay strong?

News24
27 May 2020, 16:10 GMT+10

The dust has largely settled on which frontline Springbok stars will be staying put on South African soil ... at least for one further, eerily tenuous year.

While the stressful "transfer window" period recently left a few loose ends (like the Lions' reported intention to challenge the full departure from their books of Japan-based brawny hooker Malcolm Marx), the major SA franchises have largely nailed down their frontline resources for at least one further Super Rugby campaign, in 2021.

Also being a season in which the Boks are due to host the British and Irish Lions in a once-every-12-years, highly lucrative series here, that glamorous tour will have helped no end in keeping certain star customers home-based for a crucial bit longer.

But there is a rightful fear that once the Lions have returned to the northern hemisphere, the exodus pattern from our domestic rugby - already very prevalent for several years -- will gather enormous new steam.

A strong personal suspicion is that 2020 will signal the sad, final year in which it can still be argued with some conviction that an all home-housed Springbok selection would be able to stand toe to toe, at worst, with a combo drawn from overseas-based personnel.

When the Boks won their first World Cup in 1995, Kitch Christie's squad was entirely made up of SA-based players, and only a tiny sprinkling of the victorious 2007 broad group at the France-staged tournament were already housed with club teams on the other side of the equator to ours: it would have been quite unthinkable then for any foreign-based team of South Africans to beat the overwhelming cream of the crop from our warmer climes.

The number had swelled to roughly double figures, though, when Rassie Erasmus named his squad for the third successful Bok assault on the Webb Ellis Cup last year ... and of the starting line-up which won the final against England in Yokohama, around half of them are now absent from the domestic scene.

In the aftermath of the latest bout of confirmed defections over the past fortnight or so, I believe there is still a credible enough case for suggesting a "home versus overseas" Springbok tussle (one at least indicating pleasing overall national depth for new head coach Jacques Nienaber to chew on) would potentially be an engrossing, hard-to-tip affair.

But perhaps only just - and a situation that could swing well in favour of "overseas" bragging rights if you assembled the two likely sides toward the end of next year, when SA franchises may suffer especially significant departures pain.

In picking the two sides, I stuck as closely as possible - and for pretty obvious reasons - to players known to be either already in the Bok squad pool or notably close to it, in terms of how Erasmus/Nienaber have revealed their hands in recent months over player preferences and pecking orders.

It also assumes that all candidates are fit and ready for battle, something that would not be the case in certain high-profile instances if the match was contested tomorrow (let's assume it were to occur in a few weeks or even months).

Some, natural allowance is also made for form-based evidence gathered from the badly disrupted 2020 Super Rugby season, where the Sharks were leading at its suspension and someone like Aphelele Fassi, the long-striding young fullback, a revelation for his booming maturity and amount of offensive thrust to the cause.

His duel with the immensely more experienced but still tricks-laden Bok incumbent Willie le Roux of Toyota Verblitz in the last line of defence would already be one big reason for buying tickets to the imaginary contest.

A general glance at the two back divisions I've named suggests a neck-and-neck scrap, especially with the home-based Boks now infused by returning, Cheetahs-snared Frans Steyn at No 12, an area where the overseas crew could basically choose from now on between Damian de Allende and Harlequins' fresh acquisition Andre Esterhuizen (not forgetting Jan Serfontein, either).

Flyhalf, you could argue, would be one area where the foreign-based combination - through long-time Bok first choice Handre Pollard, of Montpellier - boast a handy edge, if only because his naturally direct style in at least the first hour or so of Test matches suits the established Bok game-plan to a tee.

That said, Elton Jantjies had been playing some decent Super Rugby despite the Lions' woes in the results column and brings an intriguingly different skill set to the "home" plans.

The rival pack situation, meanwhile, brings some truly interesting conundrums for pundits to mull over.

In a nutshell, the home-based Bok XV would boast all of the current, starting loose trio: inspiring captain Siya Kolisi, World Rugby player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit and that ongoing iron man at No 8, Duane Vermeulen (now back for the Bulls, remember).

But South African rugby is traditionally renowned for its loosie depth, and who is to say that on any given day a combination made up from, variously, Marcell Coetzee, Jean-Luc or Dan du Preez, Kwagga Smith and Rynhardt Elstadt wouldn't rise to the occasion gloriously in opposition to the decorated front-liners?

The home Boks would also sport the useful advantage of the likely premier front row - Messrs Kitshoff, Mbonambi and Malherbe, all of the Stormers -- at the outset of Test activity this year, whenever it may finally turn out to be.

Again, though they could expect stern resistance from the likes of another tighthead powerhouse, Vincent Koch, and the juggernaut No 2 Marx.

Finding a suitable, foreign-based loosehead prop wasn't the easiest task (remember that Sale-based Coenie Oosthuizen packs down on the other side of the engine room these days), and eventually I settled for that often under-rated, veteran rugby traveller JC Janse van Rensburg (34) of Grenoble.

But there's a big rebalancer, if you like, when it comes to the second-row picks, where the overseas side consummately rules the roost.

Almost unquestionably, the four premier South African locks at present are all foreign-based: Bok first-team incumbents Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, followed barely less impressively by RG Snyman and Franco Mostert.

Would it be a stretch to say all of the quartet would belong among the top dozen lock forwards worldwide, in no special order, right now?

Although the Sharks pair of Ruben van Heerden and Hyron Andrews have been creeping toward better visibility on the radar, a current, home-based lock pick for the Boks - and facing an uphill battle - might well be the Lions' Marvin Orie and Newlands-based JD Schickerling, if I were to try reading the minds of Erasmus and Nienaber from a few months ago.

That duo would play severe second fiddle for experience and already-proven Test class: Orie sports three caps as a substitute and Schickerling has only represented the Emerging Springboks at this point.

It's a game I would pay good money to watch, expecting a battle royale and only a couple of points' difference on the scoreboard, whichever way it went.

Nearer the end of next year, however, I believe I know more decisively where I'd be sticking my dosh over the outcome: there'll be changes to the "local" side ... and not for the better.

Recommended home-based Boks XV:

15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 S'bu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 JD Schickerling, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff.

Recommended overseas-based Boks XV:

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Kwagga Smith (or Rynhardt Elstadt) , 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.

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