Opinion: Springboks facing healthy but complicated backline selection conundrum

Craig Lewis
Springboks backline players feature image 2022.jpg

Following on from South Africa’s emphatic win over England on Saturday, there is no doubt that the Springboks coaches guaranteed their job security through to the 2023 World Cup, writes Craig Lewis.

It’s unlikely that the futures of Rassie Erasmus or Jacques Nienaber were ever in real doubt, but when the end-of-year tour started with back-to-back defeats against the backdrop of off-field controversies, the pressure and some big questions were starting to rack up.

Strong finish to the year

However, the Springboks turned on the style against Italy and England to produce two of their most complete performances in 2022, which provided some important answers to end the year on a high.

The likes of Erasmus and Nienaber will have been able to breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a “festive” season, but very quickly attention will need to turn towards finding a solution to the most unexpected – albeit healthy – selection headache that has begun to take shape.

Ultimately, a question that the Springbok coaches will have to answer sooner rather than later relates to settling on their preferred backline, and how playmakers such as Damian Willemse, Willie le Roux and even Manie Libbok can all fit into this picture.

In Willemse, the Boks have a player who has unequivocally come of age this year, with the 24-year-old producing a series of standout performances during an otherworldly Test season in which he featured in 12 Springbok matches. He has been in the form of his life, feeding off a wave of confidence that only seems to gain more momentum each time he takes to the Test stage.

Then there’s Willie le Roux, arguably the Springboks’ most underrated superstar in 2022. After largely flying under the radar, Le Roux reclaimed the number 15 jersey for the final three Tests of the year, serving as the central cog around which so much of South Africa’s attacking play revolved.

All of a sudden, Handre Pollard – who missed a large portion of this year’s Test season due to injury – has suddenly slipped into a scenario where his pathway back to the starting lineup may not be as cut and dry as expected as the build-up to the 2023 World Cup begins to intensify.

What’s been very clear this season is that Willemse currently has the full backing of the selectors. He has started in 11 out of 12 Tests this year, only shifting to the bench for the second Test against Wales when a completely experimental starting lineup was thrown into action. In no uncertain terms, the talented utility back has repaid this faith, and on current form, he is surely ‘undroppable’.

So, if Willemse starts, what happens to Le Roux?

Love him or hate him (as some seem to do), Le Roux just increasingly looks like the sort of playmaker and game-reading visionary that the Boks cannot do without. It’s been clear this year that the Springboks are looking to evolve their attack, and this aspect of play just looks so much more slick and in sync when Le Roux is seamlessly connecting the dots in the backline.

But if you have Willemse starting at fly-half, and Le Roux at full-back, where does that leave Pollard when he returns from injury?

The 28-year-old has been the incumbent fly-half since 2018, while playing key match-winning roles in the last World Cup and British & Irish Lions series, while his big-match experience cannot be easily replicated. Even though he has struggled at times with his goal-kicking, Pollard arguably remains the Boks’ best bet in this regard.

Ultimately, this is the delicate backline balancing act that the Springboks have to get right before the World Cup.

When all three of these players are fit, there just doesn’t seem to be a way for them all to fit into the same starting lineup. Willemse is so versatile that he could be considered as an option at inside centre, but Damian de Allende remains an immovable figure in that position.

Pollard cannot expect to just walk back into the run-on XV, though, and may have to make peace with an unusual role on the bench, but there is little doubt that Willemse is perhaps better suited to a place among the ‘bomb squad’ due to the fact he can cover three positions. That could allow the Springboks to once again rely on a familiar six-two forwards-to-backs split on the bench.

Breakthrough star

It also can’t be forgotten how Libbok emerged as the breakthrough star on the end-of-year tour, and his creativity and X factor also seems ideally suited to the Springboks’ ever-evolving attack. Furthermore, Frans Steyn and Elton Jantjies will also have their own plans of entering the selection conversation before the 2023 World Cup.

This sort of conundrum would have been almost unfathomable before the start of the international season, but the consistently impressive performances of both Willemse and Le Roux has quite dramatically changed the selection landscape, particularly at a time when Pollard has found himself on the sidelines.

In the end, piecing together the most effective backline configuration for the World Cup looks likely to be one of the most challenging puzzles that the Springboks coaches will need to solve in the near future.

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