South Africa’s much vaunted conveyor belt of young, exciting rugby talent has for the first time in history been embraced and mined properly by our new rugby Messiah, Rassie Erasmus.
And halfway through the group stages of RWC 2019, the Springboks’ selection puzzle is starting to fall into place.
Erasmus took the reins 18 months ago amid the shambles of the headless chicken syndrome that epitomised the Allister Coetzee era, and he has transformed the Boks’ attitude and fortunes from pathetic no-hopers to realistic Cup contenders within a year.
He’s re-invigorated the Springboks team’s international standing. It has been a miraculous transformation based on the bed rock of extensive analysis allied to open, honest reflection and communication with players, administrators and the wider rugby community, including the press and public.
Cramming all this into only 18 Test matches, he is in the invidious position today to have one of the most balanced and talented squads at the World Cup with depth and quality right across the park despite some positions having limited experience and Test caps.
But rugby is a team game played over 80 minutes by 23 players so the trick is how to create the maximum synergy from his available talent pool. Sadly, some of the more experienced players roped in last year has lost form so I hope Erasmus has the fortitude to drop them and play the current form players, experienced or not.
So here is this enthusiastic arm chair connoisseur’s opinion on how to bring back the coveted World Cup to our rainbow nation’s shores.
The once mercurial Willie le Roux is a has-been clinging by his fingertips onto the number 15 jersey. His achilles is the high ball, which has exposed him once again and he’s fallen back into the form that cost him the jersey originally.
The mercurial, belatedly recognised Cheslin Kolbe has been the Boks’ stand-out back line performer this year and will be a devastating attack weapon from fullback – a position he’s played with aplomb. He’s a proven, reliable and fearless fielder under the high ball. A no-brainer selection.
He will be a devastating. A twinkle-toed attacking weapon against all and sundry.
In Makazole Mapimpi and S’busiso Nkosi, the Boks have two speedy, predatory finishers that in open and broken play can create havoc but will need some nurturing and assistance in defence.
Erasmus is hiding a trump card in the form of François Steyn: our one true world-class back line player who can be the final piece to unlock the puzzle of our attacking potential. He’s a proven player with oodles of talent and is a solid defender and a spatially aware attacker.
Lukhanyo Am has matured into an astute defensive leader with substantial attacking nous when in space.
Handré Pollard is up there with Beauden Barrett and Johnny Sexton technically with real gain line ability. In tandem with Steyn, he will cause problems for any defence at the World Cup. His trusty boot can be a deciding factor in the Cup’s final destination.
Faf de Klerk on his day is world class but has a tendency to be erratic under pressure so I would give Cobus Reinach the nod. He is a devastating attacker with a solid all-round game and crisp service.
Balanced with the Boks’ find of the season Herschel Jantjies on the bench, South Africa are equipped for any game plan.
Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe is the best starting line-up, with a bench of Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Vince Koch. That’s the best start and finisher combo of any team at this tournament.
The bronze winning combo at the 2015 RWC – Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager – is being re-united and can build a head of steam with the able RG Snyman or Franco Mostert on the bench.
Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi is a proven combo, and they are ably backed-up by Francois Louw.
Expect Vermeulen to be as influential as he was in 2015 when his nous single-handedly got the Boks into the semis against Wales.
Kitshoff, Marx, Koch, Snyman, Louw, Jantjies, Damian Willemse and Le Roux.
Of these finishers, Kitshoff, Marx, Snyman, Jantjies and Willemse are all x-factor players with unique abilities that can create some magic off the splinters to boost momentum and close out any marginal games.
The mercurial Willemse could become a belated ace up Rassie’s sleeve if unexpectedly introduced against major opposition that hasn’t faced his skill set before. He’s a truly rare talent with real game-breaking abilities.
Sanity will return once the play-offs start and the weather hopefully breaks with less humidity. That said, tight, low-risk rugby is everybody’s recipe to shoot for World Cup glory and I expect all teams to revert to this.
As for the other teams, Australia will always punch above their weight at the World Cup because they play a cerebral game to maximise their available talent. They might reach the semis but the final might be a bridge too far.
Ireland will factor if Sexton stays the course but I suspect temperament and injuries will sink them despite having Joe Schmidt’s astute rugby brain and coaching.
France and Argentina are always in with a one-game shout but they won’t see my money.
Japan is a revelation and I suspect will reach the quarters – the Scotland/Japan game is going to be a mouth watering clash.
My pick for the semis is the Springboks, the Kiwis, Wales and England, and all South Africans are hoping for a 1995 All Blacks vs Springboks World Cup final replay, albeit this time on neutral ground.
If so, rugby will be the winner and what a clash that will be.