The Springboks series win against Wales has given both teams’ fans a lot to talk about. Wales arrived to compete and not to give the Springboks an easy run-out.
Ryan Jordan summarises the key takeouts of the Springboks series win. It was not the 3-nil walkover anticipated by many pundits. The Springboks won the first Test at Loftus Versveld 32-29 courtesy of a last-minute penalty by Damian Willemse. The tourists made history by being the first Wales team to win a Test match on South African soil. They won 13-12 in Bloemfontein. South Africa won the series decider 30-14 at Cape Town Stadium.
🎥 HIGHLIGHTS: All the drama from yesterday’s massive #CastleIncomingSeries decider against Wales in Cape Town – watch here: https://t.co/5LBPtRSXbt#StrongerTogether #StrongerForever #SAvWAL pic.twitter.com/pljujj2kdg
— Springboks (@Springboks) July 17, 2022
Springboks series win against Wales
What is important after any Test series is to consider what can be learned. What are the positives? Also, what needs work?
The Springboks setup shipped a lot of criticism. The loyal South African fan does not easily accept a loss. Especially against a team, they have been told by multiple pundits was in for three-nil hiding in the series. Wales’s first-ever Test win on South African soil was what upset many fans and pundits. The reality is that the result in Bloemfontein could have been the series decider if it wasn’t for a last-gasp penalty kick in Pretoria that saved Springbok blushes.
Let’s face it. The Springboks were not good in Pretoria. The so-called “A” team that played in Bloemfontein revealed many issues to be addressed. Cape Town saw a semi-return to form for the men in green. A lot of work is still required in the execution of the attack as well as overall work at the breakdown. The difference Kwagga Smith made when he made his appearance was significant.
Experimentation is risky but necessary
Conservative thought would lead many coaches to play the same team week in and week out. Especially when they are winning. Planning for a Rugby World Cup in the next year and continuity after that dictates differently. Nienaber is on record as stating that he wants to build extra depth and would give each member of the extended squad game time. This is what happened during the incoming Wales Test series. We can expect more experimentation during the Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour. To support the development of depth, mid-week games are being planned for a South Africa Select 15. The first confirmed game is against the Bristol Bears. There are talks ongoing regarding two more games.
A simple example of this experimentation is the selection of tighthead props Trevor Nyakane and Thomas du Toit at loosehead. Both are originally loosehead props, but getting game time at loosehead is a great insurance policy for the Rugby World Cup 2023. Aside from this, Sharks loosehead Ntuthuko Mchunu made his Springbok debut.
Players that fans and pundits were clamouring for to be given a Test cap were given that chance. They were thrown into a very tough situation. That was on purpose and the jury is out if any of them really made enough of an impression to threaten any of the current starters. Other questions raised coming out of the Springbok series win against Wales are the depth of leadership and options in the flyhalf position.
Leadership depth is questionable
Regular captain Siya Kolisi was not included in the match-day squad in Bloemfontein. Handre Pollard took over the reins for that match. His leadership of a relatively inexperienced team wasn’t exactly inspiring. Although they had built up a handy lead, it was in the final quarter that the lack of experience and leadership was evident. A senior player such as Eben Etzebeth could have stepped up as well, but that wasn’t evident either. The situation was scripted for the likes of Duane Vermuelen to lead this team. His recent knee surgery kept him out of the series though.
Based on this, the question remains, if not Kolisi, then who?
Flyhalf depth is problematic
This series was an important reminder that the Springboks remain short of a viable alternative in the flyhalf position. Pollard missed the first Test due to his late arrival back in South Africa. Elton Jantjies started the first Test woefully short of game time. He was replaced by starting fullback Damian Willemse, with Willie le Roux coming off the bench to slot in at fullback. The Boks’ plan of developing a player who can cover 15, 12 and 10 is a good one. Frans Steyn proved that and Willemse is his natural successor. Without that option being developed, the Springboks would have been in even more trouble than they were already in during the Test at Loftus.
Pollard wasn’t at his best in the loss in Bloemfontein. His performance in Cape Town was much better. Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus have invested a lot of trust in Pollard and they will be banking on more consistency to build on in 2023.
The outlier here is Johan Goosen. He is still recovering from surgery due to a cruciate ligament injury. He has been attending the Springbok alignment camps and has recently signed a contract extension at the Bulls until 2026. If he can remain injury free, he brings the same versatility of covering 15, 12 and 10 to the squad. His primary position though is flyhalf. Given his involvement with the Springbok squad, extra Test caps are surely on the cards.
Was moving South African rugby north a masterstroke?
It is still far too early to make a call on this, but the indications are very positive that SA Rugby might have spotted an opportunity and acted on it, ignoring the norm of the traditional North vs South thinking, and choosing a new alignment. Two years on, the New Zealand teams are dominating Super Rugby Pacific. They have lost a home Test series for the first time since 1994. Australia lost their own home series against England. Admittedly, South Africa was lucky to win their own home series against Wales, but they did.
The URC, now hosting South African teams, has been a phenomenal success. Not just for the South African teams, but for viewership numbers too. The same South African teams will have to bolster their squads to be competitive in both the URC and the European Champions and Challenge Cups.
South Africa will continue to lose players to Europe, but possibly not at the same rate as in recent years. Salary caps in the Premiership would play a role in that, but so would changes in the local rugby scene. Recent contract signings in South Africa have been very promising for the local game. Players based overseas are starting to make their return, not just for a final payday. Others are signing long-term contract renewals. Some of those up to 2026.
It would be interesting to review the playing landscape again in two years’ time to see how this all develops.
Main Photo Credit: Springboks on July 17, 2022, as seen above via Twitter.