The nature of Test rugby is that it tends to run in four-year cycles, centred on the mammoth spectacle of the World Cup.
The Springboks face the next three-and-a-half years as World Cup defending champions, a lofty pedestal that has proven very difficult to defend in the past. But there are signs that the crop of young talent now establishing itself in South Africa will rise to the challenge of defending the Cup in New Zealand in 2011.
This four-year cycle inevitably brings with it the retirement of established players, making room for new players to take their places.
Last year saw the retirement of the likes of Springbok icons Os du Randt, Bob Skinstad, Johann Ackerman and AJ Venter from Test rugby. But this year’s Super 14, disappointing in terms of results, has given younger players the chance to break into the Springbok ranks.
This week coach Peter de Villiers announced his 30-man Test squad for the matches against Wales — in Bloemfontein on June 7 and Pretoria on June 14 — and Italy in Cape Town on June 21. This 30-man squad had been trimmed down from the extended training squad announced two weeks ago. De Villiers took a long-term view in selecting the original training squad, saying that ”with four years to go we wanted to pick and build on our squad for the World Cup in four years’ time. Over four years we will have three or four great teams that we can put out on the field.”
Appropriately, De Villiers called on the experience of most of Jake White’s 2007 World Cup-winning squad and mixed them with uncapped players like Louis Ludik, Duanne Vermeulen and Isma-eel Dollie for the training squad.
John Smit, Percy Montgomery, Butch James and Victor Matfield returned from overseas clubs.
De Villiers also called a few players who have seen little to no game time in this year’s Super 14, including Hilton Lobberts, Kabamba Floors and still-injured Chiliboy Ralepelle, but has defended his choice, saying: ”I have selected certain players to work with them in a squad environment alongside the country’s finest players, and others because I felt I had not seen enough of them during the Vodacom Super 14.”
De Villiers believes a Springbok environment and medical team might help get talented hooker Ralepelle playing again.
Surprisingly, a number of World Cup Boks have not made the cut for the Test squad. Starting XV wing JP Pietersen has been dropped, along with lock Johann Muller and centre Wynand Olivier. Sharks prop Jannie du Plessis did not make the original training squad.
De Villiers, with his new assistant coaches, Gary Gold and Dick Muir, will have several checkpoints to get through on the way to 2011.
The first will be this year’s Tri-Nations, where the Boks play for their first series win since 2004. Standing in their way will be the Wallabies, also under a new coach in the form of Robbie Deans, and the All Blacks, who look to be the Springboks’ toughest opponents. Still smarting from their abysmal World Cup last year, the Kiwis will be out to prove a point when they take on the world champions. New Zealand rugby is undergoing a minor crisis, losing players to cash-rich northern hemisphere teams, but will still be able to field an All Black team capable of picking up where it left off in last year’s Tri-Nations.
The midway checkpoint in De Villiers’s build-up will be next year’s British Lions tour of South Africa. The Lions will be coached by the highly experienced Ian McGeechan, who will travel on his seventh Lions tour. They will face a string of provincial sides and then take on the Springboks on June 20, June 27 and July 4. By that stage De Villiers should be building up the necessary depth in all positions and be starting to have an idea of what his World Cup squad will look like.
Several of last year’s World Cup winners are still young enough to be in their playing prime at the next World Cup, if they are managed and rested correctly.
Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana will be 28 years old in 2011. Juan Smith will be 30 and FranÃ§ois Steyn and JP Pietersen won’t even have hit 25. All should bring not only their own undisputable talents but also the experience of succeeding under the pressure of World Cup 2007.
Outside that World Cup first XV, there is much talent that should be peaking in 2011. Pierre Spies, who would have been first-choice number eight in France last year but dropped out due to blood clots in his lungs, has recently returned to playing for the Bulls and was selected for De Villiers’s squad. Spies, who began his career playing on the wing, has the potential to combine the size and strength of a traditional loose-forward with the pace and ball-handling of a wing. We have yet to see what the 22-year-old is capable of.
Pushing Spies hard for the Bok number eight jersey over the next few years and leading into the next World Cup will be Sharks’ first choice, Ryan Kankowski. The two are the same age, with similar playing styles, both possessing line-break skills and acceleration to worry the best defences. By 2011 we might be spoilt for choice by having the world’s two best number eights in the Springbok squad.
Also making a rapid ascent to the top is Stormers lock Andries Bekker, sure to feature in Springbok selections over the next few years. At 2,08m tall, Bekker would not look out of place in an NBA team. His 120kg bulk is an asset in any scrum. Yet despite his size, Bekker is no lumbering brute. He is the prototype of the lock of the future, big but not slow, an enforcer at the breakdown and a towering presence in the line-out, and also able to finish attacking moves like a centre.
Their consistent form in the Super 14 has also earned places for props Brian Mujati and Tendai ”Beast” Mtawarira, both hailing from Zimbabwe.
Tighthead Mujati has been one of the most consistent Super 14 players in this challenging specialist position, while former flank Mtawarira is a classic, big and hard-hitting loosehead, who has excelled as first choice for the Sharks. Mujati is 23 years old and Mtawarira 22 — both young for props — and both will grow into the makings of a dangerous Springbok front row.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Springbok selectors over the next few years is the same one that will trouble other southern hemisphere sides — ensuring that young players stay in the country long enough to be able to play their best rugby here and not in the sleet and mud of a European club game.
Allowing the selection of foreign-based players might actually stem this tide, as clubs would be more reluctant to throw money at players likely to miss games because of international commitments. By welcoming back the likes of Smit and Matfield into the Springbok fold, South Africa are certainly ahead of New Zealand, who still refuse to pick overseas players for the All Blacks, even as their stocks of quality players dwindle.
The Bok squad assembles in Bloemfontein on Sunday, preparing to face Wales at Vodacom Park next Saturday.