As we gear up for the biggest event on the rugby calendar, people all over traditional and social media debate the various teams’ chances in Japan, and how each team should stack up throughout the tournament. In the first of a number of previews and profiles of the top teams in this year’s World Cup, I look at the Springboks and their form and depth running into the showcase in Japan.
Rassie Erasmus has put a lot of work into not only the group of 31 men that landed in Japan last week, but he has also worked with the franchises across South Africa to create a great deal of depth in South African rugby that has been missing since the last time they won the World Cup in 2007. While it can be argued that there are one or two players from years gone by that could replace any of the current Boks, it has been some time since a Springbok squad of 31 players has shown this much depth, talent and ability.
Any one of the players in the wider squad can easily slot into the starting lineup without much of an effect on the quality of the side, which shows how far Erasmus’ chargers have come since the relatively poor depth of the Boks under Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee. Both of those Springbok squads were focused purely on the starting fifteen, and put little emphasis on how the bench and wider squad shaped up. This was clear in the lead up to the 2015 World Cup, as some injuries to crucial players, including then-captain Jean de Villiers, saw their form slump to a point where they were on the losing end of one of the biggest World Cup upsets against Japan.
Compare that to the 2019 Springboks, who were missing their captain, Siya Kolisi, for most of the 2019 season through injury. Not only did they go on to comprehensively defeat Australia in Johannesburg with a largely second choice line-up, they also managed to hold the then-World No. 1 All Blacks to a 16-all draw in Wellington. They secured the Rugby Championship title for the first time in ten years without their captain, proving their strength in depth throughout the tournament (as well as the “friendly” against Argentina a week later) as they altered their starting lineups for each match.
South Africa have also made a masterstroke decision in heading to Japan at least a week earlier than the rest of the visiting nations in order to avenge the 2015 loss to Japan. Not only did the 7-41 victory lay to rest the ghosts of 2015, it also gave the Springboks their first taste of the challenging conditions that will plague all of the teams throughout the tournament.
During their final warm-up match, the Springboks experienced the high humidity and intense heat that is typical of Japan at this time of year. They will then know better than anyone (apart from the host nation) how important the use of the bench will be throughout the tournament. World Cups are always tests of depth, but the adverse conditions in Japan will place greater importance on the bench and the wider player pool, as players will experience greater fatigue than in other countries that have hosted the tournament.
The experiences of Elton Jantjies and Kwagga Smith will also play a massive role in the squad, as they have both played for Japanese clubs, in Japanese conditions, during the off-season of Super Rugby. They will be able to help out the rest of their teammates adjust to the conditions, as they all acclimatise to the foreign conditions. With arguably the best bench on the international stage, the Boks will surely be able to keep their foot on the accelerator for the full 80 minutes in each match throughout the tournament.
Erasmus’ men have been on an upward trend in 2019, and none of their performances this year have shown them at their best. At the end of each match, a number of different aspects of the Boks’ performances have been highlighted as areas that still need work. However, they have continued their unbeaten run in 2019, and with their extra week in Japan, the Springboks will be the best prepared in the week before the start of the World Cup.
South Africa’s first match in the World Cup will likely be the biggest match of the pool stages, and many believe that if they manage to see off New Zealand in the opening round, they will be firm favourites to win the Webb Ellis Cup for the third time. With their earlier meeting this year ending in a draw, and with South Africa only looking better since then, it is not unlikely to think that the Boks could pull off a big win against their arch rivals, and get their campaign off to the best possible start.