With the Springbok squad Rugby World Cup announcement just a day away, and with media all over South Africa speculating about which one out of the current 32-man squad will miss out, I thought I should add my voice into the conversation. With just 31 places available in the Rugby World Cup 2019 squad, competition for all places is fierce, and provides a positive selection headache for the Bok coach for the first time since the last World Cup.
The question ultimately boils down to how many forwards and how many backs should go to Japan in Rassie Erasmus’ squad. As it stands, there are currently 14 backs and 18 forwards in Bloemfontein with the squad. It is common practice when forming a squad for a tournament like the World Cup to take at least two players per position, to provide good back up per position.
There are currently a number of players that will be confident of their place on the plane to Japan, with Handre Pollard, Elton Jantjies, Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies, Sibusiso Nkosi, Cheslin Kolbe, Frans Steyn, Damian de Allende, Lukhanyo Am, Jesse Kriel, Willie le Roux and Makazole Mapimpi all but guaranteed a ticket to Japan. Likewise, forwards such as Malcolm Marx, Tendai Mtawarira, Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Trevor Nyakane should all rest easy tonight as they await the announcement tomorrow.
While all of the above players are likely to form the starting XV, there are a number of players that, while not as secure in their place as the above, should feel quite comfortable with their place in the squad. Players like Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, RG Snyman, Kwagga Smith, Schalk Brits, Cobus Reinach and Rynhardt Elstadt are fairly settled, and will likely be the back ups for their corresponding places in the starting line up.
It has been argued by a number of different media houses and other supporters on social media that Elstadt and Smith are both in danger of getting the axe, as it is likely that Erasmus will only take five loose forwards in the squad. With Kolisi back in the squad, and Louw playing well in his outings for the Boks, Smith would be battling for a place on the bench. However, Du Toit and Vermeulen are also forcing Elstadt to fight for his place in the squad.
Smith was selected to start in the two most crucial matches of the Boks’ season this year, and performed exceptionally well in both of them. However, Elstadt has done little wrong during his time on the field. Both Smith and Elstadt can cover all three positions in the back row, meaning that it is very difficult to choose between the two of them.
However, if a forward must be dropped, it does not have to be a loose forward. Looking at the locks in the squad, and the players that can cover lock if needed, the best option for Erasmus might be to only take three specialist locks in the squad. While Etzebeth and Mostert are all but guaranteed their starting positions, RG Snyman has performed exceptionally well during his time on the field, making strong carries, big defensive hits and has been reliable in the lineout.
De Jager, on the other hand, has not been at his best since he joined the Bulls, and could face being axed if Erasmus decides to take six loose forwards. What would make this setup even more likely is the fact that Elstadt and Du Toit can both fill in at lock and have done so very effectively in the past. This would mean that De Jager would have to wait in South Africa as back up if needed.
Alternatively, should Erasmus choose to go into the World Cup with one less backline player, it would be a very difficult decision deciding who to leave behind. Jantjies and Pollard are the only settled flyhalves in the squad, and it is doubtful that Erasmus will go into the World cup with any less pivots. Likewise De Klerk, Herschel Jantjies and Reinach are all settled in the scrumhalf birth, and Erasmus has said that he will take three halfbacks to Japan.
In the centres, Am, De Allende and Kriel are all first choice starters, and the most difficult choice would be deciding which one to bench. Steyn has been phenomenal in his support role from the bench and his versatility to cover centre, flyhalf and fullback all mean that he is the most valuable utility back in the side.
With only three specialist wings in the side, Mapimpi, Nkosi and Kolbe are guaranteed to go to the World Cup, meaning that one of the two fullbacks could be the one to miss out. Le Roux and Warrick Gelant have had equal amounts of game time in the green and gold this year, however Le Roux has been selected for the more decisive fixtures, making a big impact, although he has made a few errors that he has struggled to shake off. Gelant, on the other hand, played very well in his matches against Australia and Argentina, but was not trusted in the most crucial matches of the year. With Kolbe and Steyn both able to cover fullback, it might not be out of the question for Gelant to miss out in favour of the an extra forward.
With all of the speculation around the Bok squad at the moment, it is impossible to say which will be the unlucky player come Monday. However, if I were in Erasmus’ shoes, I would favour taking 14 backline players, and 17 forwards, meaning that I would have to leave de Jager behind. Only time will tell who Erasmus will choose, but either way it can only be seen as a positive sign that this decision is so difficult to make.