The anticipation for this year’s Rugby Championship is still in the air.
World Cup winners South Africa will still have much of their squad intact from Yokohama under new coach Jacques Nienaber.
The All Blacks will have a few personnel changes but their strength in depth remains scarily good.
Much is to be said about the potential resurgence of the Wallabies and Pumas, with both entering transition periods after lacklustre and underwhelming cycles for the 2015 semi-finalists and finalists respectively.
Here I give my predicted Springboks XV to kick off the tournament.
1. Steven Kitshoff
The ginger ninja is a very good all-round player and scrummager. He started in South Africa’s awesome campaign. With 47 caps and as a proven World Cup winner, Kitshoff will surely feature under Nienaber.
2. Malcolm Marx
Bongi Mbonambi may have started the final, but Marx brings brilliant defence and energy in contact and to rucks. He really is South Africa’s additional fetcher. He has steadily improved his set-piece game after some concerns with his lineout game.
3. Frans Malherbe
This meaty prop played a huge role in demolishing the England scrum in Japan. He rivals Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler as the best tighthead prop in the world. A proper wrecking ball in open play and sensational in the scrum.
4. Eben Etzebeth
South Africa’s enforcer and quite possibly one of the scariest and most intimidating players in world rugby, Etzebeth is a proven Test veteran who relishes contact. With 85 caps to his name, Etzebeth is a true Test animal.
5. Lood de Jager
De Jager is an underrated player who has seen a lot of action for South Africa. He marshals the set-piece and maul well alongside Etzebeth.
6. Siya Kolisi (captain)
There’s not much to say about the man who led one of the sport’s greatest and most inspirational campaigns both on a personal and team level. His playing skills have also improved since becoming captain – he’s a quality flanker who dominates in contact and at the breakdown and ranks highly with the likes of Michael Hooper, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Julian Savea and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
7. Pieter-Steph du Toit
He was Men’s World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019 and deservedly so. He’s a massive engine in defence and wears his pride on his sleeve. He’s one of the best players in the world.
8. Duane Vermeulen
At 34 years old his shelf life is small, but he’s the best No. 8 in the world. A beast in contact and one of South Africa’s best in the rucks, Vermeulen is probably the best all-round No. 8 along with his delicate hands.
9. Faf de Klerk
The Fafster’s place is no doubt in this side. It’s hard to imagine that after the 2016 Rugby Championship he was booted from the squad by Allister Coetzee. Since his recall, he’s been one of rugby’s best No. 9s, with fantastic and accurate kicking and marshalling of the scrum and backline. He and Handre Pollard go hand in hand.
10. Handre Pollard
Probably the best goal kicker in the game right now, Pollard is one hell of a player and easily in the top five No. 10s in the game. What’s more, his accurate kicking game is complemented by his abnormal physicality – Pollard is a viable crash ball option with his frame and one of the most comfortable No. 10s in defence.
11. Makazole Mapimpi
Mapimpi will go down as the first South African to score a try in a final. He brings sheer pace and phenomenal ball carrying, plus he is more capable in defence and aerially. Like Kolisi, he has had a truly inspirational career.
12. Damian De Allende
The glue of the Springbok midfield, DDA has a sound kicking game and is more than competent in defence.
13. Lukhanyo Am
The best defending outside back in the world, I was disappointed to see that in the recent game Rugby Challenge 4 Jesse Kriel was the Boks No. 13 instead of Am. Am is very underrated for a player so comfortable in defence and has the athleticism and precision for attacking moves.
14. Cheslin Kolbe
That try. That step. He’s a very, very athletic player with a phenomenal step. He can cover No. 15 too. Expect plenty more tries from the small fella.
15. Willie le Roux
Maybe it’s time for Damian Willemse, but I think there’s a divide between where the Boks and Stormers want to play him. Le Roux for now has just slid in due to his experience and role as a second playmaker, which Willemse will offer. Only 31, Le Roux has been one of the best for a while and has a slick kicking game to bolster the Pollard-De Klerk axis.
There are two options for the Boks to take. One is the preferred 6-2 split, which will be used to grind opponents down. Rudolph Gerhardus Snyman and Francois Louw’s absences mean there are some spots up for grabs.
The reserve props will likely be Du Toit and Vincent Koch, with Mbonambi as hooker and Franco Mostert covering flank and lock.
The second lock spot could be taken by Marvin Orie, who has long been impressive for the Lions – though Jean-Luc du Preez may have some thoughts on that.
I’m unsure about Kwagga Smith’s position with sevens or pursuing the Lions tour – if the 6-2 split is used, I think Marcell Coetzee, the Du Preez brothers, Rynhardt Elstadt and Marco van Staden all have shots for grabs as reserve flank.
I have a feeling the 6-2 split could be used against the All Blacks. In a 6-2 squad the backs will be Herschel Jantjies as reserve scrummie, though No. 23 will be a dilemma.
I am sure that Frans Steyn wants to bow out against the Lions, so either he or Jesse Kriel can cover centre, wing and No. 15, leaving the versatile options to remain alongside Damian Willemse, who could have the tournament ahead of Steyn to receive some game time. Injury permitting, I think Steyn will be featuring in either or both the tournament and Lions series.
In a 5-3 split the Boks could get away with the same forwards apart from a back row sub and have Mostert covering both as since Du Toit can also cover both No. 7 and lock.
A 5-3 split may suggest a more athletic game of rugby, though in a 6-2 split with Kwagga Smith the Boks still have the dynamism of a brilliants sevens player in the back row.
The 5-3 split is more important for the backs though. Jantijes will have the back-up No. 9 role and one of Steyn and Willemse will be there too.
No. 23 therefore could be Jesse Kriel, who unluckily doesn’t make the starting XV. Kriel is shredded has proven experience and good performances on the international stage.