A South African team won’t win Super Rugby in 2018 but I’ve seen enough in the first eight rounds to be even more convinced that there is enough quality for the Springboks to beat England and to be contenders in the Rugby Championship.
I’m incredibly excited at the possibility of what the Springboks can do from June onwards.
Individually there have been some huge South African performances in the past month. None has been more impressive than Jean-Luc du Preez in the past fortnight. His older brother, flyhalf Robert du Preez, was also excellent in New Zealand. Expect to see both in Rassie Erasmus’s Springbok squad selections in June.
The Sharks in New Zealand played like the team I imagined them to be when I wrote them up as my South African favourite. The Sharks revelled in the confrontational nature of the New Zealand contests and expect more of the same when they take on the Bulls in Durban. The challenge now for the Sharks is to deal with expectation, which hasn’t always been their ally.
The Sharks, when the big things are expected of them, have often stumbled. Write them off and they tend to respond. But the latter can only be a momentary solution and the Sharks are a team that should embrace the pressure of expectation. They’re a team whose players are good enough to get results. There should always be an expectation of success with the Sharks, especially the current crop of players.
The Sharks should be a top six tournament team and not a team content with being a mid-table pretender to something more appealing.
The tight five of the Sharks is missing X-factor quality. They’re more capable, than cutting, as a unit. Outside of this there isn’t a heck of a lot that needs improving. The back three, with Curwin Bosch adding an attacking dimension from fullback, is the equal of any in the competition. Lukhanyo Am has been consistently good at No 13 and (Robert) du Preez and his halfback partners have started to find confidence and presence.
Then there’s (Jean-Luc) du Preez. He has been colossal and in the in the past fortnight there isn’t a loose-forward in the competition who has matched his all-round contribution.
When you think of Du Preez as the Springbok incumbent No 7 and a player like Duane Vermeulen to add to the collective, and you think of Malcolm Marx as the starting hooker and veteran Bismarck du Plessis as potentially adding to the squad strength, then you start getting an appreciation of the possibilities of the 2018 Springboks.
Erasmus can select two packs of equal strength and quality. It’s the combinations the coach settles on that will ultimately prove the most telling.
The Bok forward options have never been an issue to a Springbok coach; it’s been finding the right fit in combination that has tripped up many of Erasmus’s predecessors.
The Bok outside backs are also good enough and Erasmus clearly has learned from his predecessor’s selections when it comes to the wing options. Erasmus, in his pre-June national squad call-ups, has not invested in those who played for the Springboks on the wing in 2017. This can only make for an improvement.
I am also comforted at the prospects at flyhalf. Elton Jantjies’s Super Rugby form can’t be ignored. There is an argument that Jantjies is a brilliant Super Rugby flyhalf who can’t transfer his form to Test rugby. I don’t believe it’s that simple because Jantjies was very good in the three-Test series against the French in 2017 and was equally impressive in matches against Argentina and Australia. He struggled against the All Blacks in Albany last year, but find me a flyhalf who excels when his team takes a 57-0 beating?
Jantjies, on form, is making it difficult to leave him out. Handre Pollard and (Robert) du Preez will definitely add to the flyhalf mix and expect to see all three used at some stage in June. Pat Lambie, starting at flyhalf for Racing Metro, will also add experience to the flyhalf options. I think it is too early for Damian Willemse to be included as a flyhalf option. Expect to see him selectively introduced into the Bok squad this season. He won’t initially be a starting option.
The one area that does concern me is scrumhalf. The stocks aren’t great when it comes to settled options. There is some very good talent, especially at the Bulls, but if there is one glaring vulnerability for the Springboks, it is depth at No 9 and if there is a potential weakness, it is the uncertainty about who will start at No 9.
No one domestically has been consistently that good to demand a starting place based on form. This is a problem. Faf de Klerk, of the overseas-based options, has been the best, but even his best hasn’t been compelling.
I’ve always like the idea of Ruan Pienaar adding his experience to the No 9 Bok match-day squad but I understand he isn’t available. In his absence it is likely to be De Klerk, but the feisty halfback’s possible selection would ask as many questions, as it would give answers.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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