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Opinion

Who makes South Africa's squad for the Lions Series?

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30th March, 2021
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While everyone is throwing their Lions XV’s left, right and centre, no one is speaking about the World Champions.

South Africa may not have played for nearly 18 months, but there are plenty of players in Super Rugby Unlocked, Japan, France, Ireland and England (experienced and novice) putting their hands up for a spot.

At the time of writing, I am finding it hard to see updates on injuries of the likes of Pieter Steph du Toit, RG Snyman and Handre Pollard – guaranteed starters, or at least 23 picks. From the limited news I can see, it seems Snyman is back running while Pollard and Du Toit are in rehab.

Front row

Steven Kitshoff should emerge as South Africa’s premier loosie after Tendai Mtawarira’s retirement. Kitshoff brings a strong scrummaging game with some decent ball carrying and offloading ability that should make him the first name on the team sheet. Ox Nche’s brilliant form from last season should see him take the role of reserve loosehead, which will be contested by Trevor Nyakane and Coeine Oosthuzien.

At hooker, Malcolm Marx has been tearing up the Japanese league and is an obvious choice alongside Bongi Mbonombi. What is less obvious is who starts. Mbonombi brings a slightly safer lineout option, whereas Marx is the prospect of an extra back rower with his fearsome presence at the ruck.

At tighthead, the beefy Frans Malherbe is an easy selection given his prominent role in dismantling the English scrum in Japan. His understudies are likely to be Thomas du Toit and Vincent Koch. Koch has the selection issue of limited and counterproductive game time playing in the English championship, meaning Du Toit may be a preferred, fitter backup. Wilco Louw is also by no means a belter, given his impressive form with Harlequins.

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Second row

Given Snyman and Du Toit are nursing serious injuries, it is interesting to see if Jacques Nienaber employs a ‘bomb squad’. While I think both will win the race to return to fitness, it is smart if the South Africans fully lock and load their lock stores. Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert are definite, with Mostert and now Etzebeth being able to cover a flank. Jason Jenkin’s shining season with the Bulls could well earn him a spot too, while the young JJ van der Mescht has bags of potential at only 21. Dan du Preez is also one performing consistently at South African Exiles XV (aka Sale Sharks) in England.

Back row

With Du Toit’s potential omission, and if a lock-flank hybrid like Mostert or even Etzebeth does not replace him, there are plenty of options for Nienaber to use.

Skipper Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen are locked in and will likely be joined by Marco van Staden and Sikhumbuzo Notshe. Jean-Luc du Preez has been intimidating in the Premiership and could be the physical flanker needed for the challenge of the Lions. Jono Ross, Ruann Ackermann, Jasper Wiese and Hanro Liebenberg are also some big ball carriers at no.8 who have constantly been industrious for Sharks, Gloucester and Leicester Tigers respectively.

But there are two other players, in particular, who should be in the Springboks side for the summer. Marcell Coetzee and Jaques Vermeulen are the lunatics you need to nullify Warren Gatland’s men. Vermeulen was one of the best back rowers in Exeter’s double winning side and is a menace everywhere. Coetzee has been an integral part of making Ulster a more than competitive force on the European stage in recent years. He has 30 caps of experience and enough form to warrant a recall to South Africa and his intentions are clear with his signing to the Bulls.

Halfback

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A lot easier to select here: Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach are the stand out, tried and tested no.9’s able to win games and titles for the Boks.

At 10, however, the potential of Pollard missing causes a huge issue. Elton Jantjies is the only back up with enough experience to be slotted in. However, it always seems that there may be a lack of trust in him for bigger games. Jantjies is more suited to running rugby against weaker opposition when a need of a bonus point is there. In (expected) much tighter games against the Lions, there are still question marks over his temperament.

The other capped options at 10 are Willie Le Roux and Frans Steyn, who are only emergency 10’s at best. Steyn’s kicking and boot may make him a suitable one off replacement but, if not at fullback, inside centre is Steyn’s place to cover. Damien Willemse does not have enough experience to be thrown in against the Lions and Curwin Bosch needs a lot more game time for the Springboks before even being considered for a pivotal role.

Rob du Preez is a neat player but there is little time for him to get the experience and taste of starting at 10 for the Springboks. Given his familiarity of northern hemisphere strategies, he would not be a bad selection in the squad at all.

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Centres

Damien de Allende has been fantastic for Munster and is a starting 12, with Lukhanyo Am a certainty at 13. However, Andre Esterhuzien’s rebirth at Harlequins and his ability to cover 15 means a recall to the camp is surely on the cards, given how unlucky he was not to go to Japan. Rohan Janse van Rensburg has always been in conversation as an athletic ball runner – only time will tell if coaches have faith in his defence for his recall. Jan Serfontein was also unlucky not to be in Japan, and a solid workhorse at inside cntre could be a dark horse for the Boks, if an issue in the other partnership emerges.

Back three

Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe are week on week dazzling defenders in France and Japan. The rapid and reliable Sbu Nkosi is a trusted back up to the said burners. Dilyn Leyds has been in buzzing form for La Rochelle and has put his hand up for a recall. Jesse Kriel, Willie Le Roux and Frans Steyn are favourable for firm selections as utility covers, despite Steyn’s age and questions regarding Le Roux’s consistency.

Here is my strongest XV, with injuries taken into account
1. Steven Kitshoff
2. Malcolm Marx
3. Frans Malherbe
4. Eben Etzebeth
5. Lood de Jager
6. Siya Kolisi (c)
7. Franco Mostert or Marcell Coetzee
8. Duane Vermeulen
9. Faf de Klerk
10. Elton Jantjies
11. Makazole Mapimpi
12. Damien de Allende
13. Lukahnayo Am
14. Cheslin Kolbe
15. Willie Le Roux

Bench
16. Bongi Mbonombi
17. Ox Nche
18. Vincent Koch
19. Jaques Vermuelen
20. Marco van Staden
21. Cobus Reinach
22. Jesse Kriel
23. Frans Steyn