Rugby Championship preview: Springboks set to challenge for honours again

David Skippers
Springboks Rugby Championship preview image 2023.jpg

Springboks prop Steven Kitshoff, alongside head coach Jacques Nienaber and utility back Damian Willemse.

Next up in our set of previews ahead of the Rugby Championship, we delve into the prospects of last year’s second-place finishers, the Springboks.

With the Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon, and its kick off just over two months away, the world champions will be brimming with confidence as they continue their preparations for that tournament with the Rugby Championship campaign.

As the defending world champions, South Africa will have a target on their backs in a World Cup year and early signs are that the Boks will be competitive in this year’s Rugby Championship despite some setbacks with their preparations.

The biggest blows to their campaign is that they will be without the services of two of their most senior players in captain Siya Kolisi and vice-captain Handre Pollard, who are sidelined with knee and calf injuries respectively.

Earlier this year, it was also announced that head coach Jacques Nienaber and assistant coach Felix Jones would be leaving their respective positions after the World Cup, with Nienaber set to join Leinster while Jones will join England’s coaching team.

Despite those setbacks, the Boks’ preparations are on track ahead of the start of their international campaign and they are sure to be a force in their annual series against their southern hemisphere rivals.

Last year

South Africa made a bright start to last year’s Rugby Championship when they delivered a dominant performance against New Zealand in their tournament opener at Mbombela Stadium, claiming a 26-10 victory.

That result put plenty of pressure on the All Blacks and their head coach Ian Foster – as they came into the tournament after suffering a 2-1 series defeat to Ireland.

Another Bok victory over their arch rivals would have resulted in Foster losing his job but it was not to be as the All Blacks bounced back in style at Ellis Park to seal a somewhat surprising 35-23 win.

That result seemed to knock the wind out of the Boks’ sails as they looked out of sorts in their next match against Australia at the Adelaide Oval, coming out on the wrong end of a 25-17 result.

Despite those back-to-back defeats, the Boks returned to the victory trail in style courtesy of a 24-8 win against the Wallabies in the return match in Sydney, with Canan Moodie announcing himself with a well-taken try on his Test debut.

That victory brought plenty of positivity to the Springboks’ camp and they followed that up with a 36-20 triumph against Argentina in Buenos Aires, which meant they were still in the hunt for the title on the final matchday.

Heading into the final round, every side mathematically could win the title with the Boks and All Blacks best-placed to achieve glory.

However, South Africa were up against Los Pumas in Durban and faced with a huge task as they had to win with a bonus point against Argentina while hoping New Zealand would not claim a maximum against the Wallabies, as the Kiwis had a 13-point difference advantage ahead of those last matches.

It wasn’t to be though as the All Blacks cruised to 40-14 bonus-point win over Australia which left the Boks needing to seal their bonus-point triumph with a winning margin of 39 points or more. They failed in their mission as they claimed a 39-21 win – without notching a bonus point – and had to settle for second spot on the table, one point adrift of champions New Zealand.

This year

South Africa will head into this year’s tournament in a positive mood as they begin their campaign against Australia on July 8 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria – a venue which has proved to be a real fortress for them against the Wallabies.

In seven games at Loftus the Wallabies are yet to be victorious although they will fancy their chances of causing an upset this year, as Nienaber and South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus have indicated that they intend to split the Bok squad, with a select group heading to New Zealand for the game against the All Blacks at Mount Smart Stadium a week after their opener.

That match against their arch rivals holds the key to the Boks’ fortunes during this year’s tournament as back-to-back wins in their first two matches could set them up nicely for their last match of the competition, against Argentina in Johannesburg on July 29.

Key players

With their captain Kolisi and his deputy Pollard ruled out of this tournament through injury, there will be plenty of pressure on the likes of Kwagga Smith and Manie Libbok, who are expected to replace the more experienced duo in the Boks’ first choice run-on side.

Smith is no stranger to the Bok set-up as he has been ever-present in their broader squads since his Test debut in 2018 and also in matchday 23s in recent years, albeit mostly off the replacements bench. He will have big boots to fill as Kolisi’s replacement but is more than capable of doing that as he has proven in the past that he can play in any position in the back-row and will be keen to grab his opportunity during the Rugby Championship.

Meanwhile, Libbok is the favourite to take Pollard’s spot as the team’s chief playmaker and he too will be in the spotlight to deliver the goods in the pressure cooker environment of international rugby where the intensity levels are high and the margins for error much smaller than what he is used to in the United Rugby Championship with the Stormers. The 25-year-old has made three Test appearances, all as replacements in 2022 and will be keen to show off his excellent skill set as a starter in this tournament for the Boks.

Another backline player of whom much is expected is star centre Lukhanyo Am, who was in excellent form during the Springboks’ 2022 international campaign before he suffered a serious knee injury which kept him on the sidelines for three months. Blessed with outstanding distribution skills and a key decision maker in the Bok backline, the 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee did not scale similar heights prior to that injury and he will be keen to return to his best form as soon as possible.

With Kolisi on the sidelines, there will be extra pressure on the Boks’ leadership group with the likes of Am, Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff and Pieter-Steph du Toit expected to step up in providing guidance and direction as senior players in the squad. Apart from Am, the aforementioned trio of forwards are amongst the favourites to replace Kolisi as a captain and apart from their leadership skills, they will also be expected to be at the forefront of South Africa’s forward onslaught.

Players to watch

One player who will be keen to hit the ground running in green and gold is Munster second-row Jean Kleyn, who is set to make his return to the international arena after winning five Test caps for Ireland in 2019. Kleyn was a surprise omission from Ireland’s training squad ahead of the World Cup and Nienaber did not hesitate in calling him up to the Bok squad when given the opportunity to do so. The 29-year-old was at the forefront of Munster’s onslaught during their triumphant URC campaign and will be determined to replicate that outstanding form in the Test arena.

Meanwhile, Jasper Wiese has established himself as the Boks’ first choice number eight with some strong performances during the 2022 Test campaign. A strong ball carrier and solid on defence, Wiese’s game has come on in leaps and bounds since joining Leicester Tigers, with his ball carrying particularly impressive. His club form was rewarded when he was crowned as the Premiership Players’ Player of the Year earlier this year and he will be hoping to continue in that vein for South Africa.

Also keep an eye on backline game-breakers like Damian Willemse, Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse, who have proven that they are amongst the best attacking players in the game. Whether at full-back, inside centre or fly-half, Willemse has become a vital cog in the Bok machine and should make a good contribution regardless of the number on his back.

Meanwhile, Kolbe and Arendse are similar in style and both can change unlock the tightest defences with their outstanding skill sets. Kolbe is more experienced and has done the business on a regular basis for the Boks since his Test debut in 2018. Arendse arrived on the international scene last year but has caught the eye with several brilliant attacking performances and has already scored seven tries in as many Tests.

Prospects

Despite being without their talismanic captain and chief playmaker, South Africa should once again be very competitive in the Rugby Championship. As usual, their forwards are set to be dominant in most exchanges and will lay a solid platform for their backline where they have some talented game-breakers.

We expect them to win both of their home games but they face a tough challenge in their away match against New Zealand. That encounter should be a bridge too far for them and they will have to settle for second place.

Fixtures

Saturday, July 8 v South Africa (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, July 15 v New Zealand (Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland)
Saturday, July 29 v New Zealand (Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg)

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