Springboks: Eight takeaways from Rassie Erasmus’ alignment camp squad as the World Cup winners embrace youth

Jared Wright
Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, Ruan Venter and Springboks head coach Rassie Erasmus.

Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, Ruan Venter and Springboks head coach Rassie Erasmus.

Following the announcement of Rassie Erasmus’ first Springboks alignment camp squad, here are our takeaways from the selection.

The top line

Let’s not get too carried away with ourselves here; this is not a playing, training or pool of players from which Erasmus will exclusively select in 2024. It’s simply a group of players who have been invited to get a feel of the Springboks structures and an opportunity for the coaches to get to know the playing squad better. In many cases, it will be the first time that players have met or spoken to Erasmus and his assistants in person, particularly Tony Brown and Jerry Flannery.

For starters, the overseas-based players – many of whom are likely to be first-choice stars – are not involved due to club commitments, while there will be an array of reasons why a certain player has been invited, and others haven’t – more on that shortly.

The Bok boss has cast a wide net by inviting 43 players to join the camp in Cape Town, a huge squad considering just four players are not based in South Africa and are currently rehabilitating injuries. For some perspective, 92 players featured for the United Rugby Championship (URC) sides this past weekend, and many of the invitees, such as Eben Etzebeth, Damian Willemse and Frans Malherbe, didn’t even play.

In short, this camp is a meet-and-greet and an orientation of sorts as the coaches lay out their plans for the year to come, and probably beyond, and lay down a path to claiming a place in the squad for many of the players, making it clear what objectives they have to reach in order to crack the official squads later on in the year.

It also introduces the new faces to what the Springbok culture is like, what is expected of them and how training camps will operate so that if or when they are called upon, they are not overwhelmed and settle in far quicker.

One of Rassie’s mantras is to get the “right people, not the best people, because sometimes the best people are a****les”, and getting to know the players is the best way to find out how to categorise them.

Rassie addresses future positional issues

There is bound to be a big turnover of players in the Springboks squad during this Rugby World Cup cycle after a large majority of the team won the tournament in 2019, claimed a British and Irish Lions series victory and then defended their title.

While several players will still be in action by the time Australia 2027 comes around, some will not be playing at the level required to represent the Springboks, as the ageing squad will need a youth boost. Erasmus knows and understands this and highlighted in an interview the need for the Boks to develop their depth, specifically in the front-row and second-row.

The general rule of thumb for front-rowers is that they hit the peak of their careers around the age of 28 and into their early 30s. Despite being cornerstones of the Springboks’ pack over the past two World Cups, Steven Kitshoff, Malherbe, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and Vincent Koch will all be on the wrong side of that scale and all in their mid to late 30s. Recognising this, Erasmus has invited four uncapped hookers, one uncapped prop and three props with less than 10 Test caps.

The same is true for the locks, as RG Snyman was the only lock under 30 years old in the World Cup squad last year, and Erasmus has called in one uncapped lock and two with under 10 caps.

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Smaller unions are being looked at

The name Marnus van der Merwe will have surprised most fans who were scanning through the list of players searching to see if their favourite made the cut or not. The Cheetahs hooker will be an unknown entity to many, largely because of the fact that he does not play for one of the four United Rugby Championship teams.

Van der Merwe enjoyed a strong Currie Cup campaign last year, scoring five tries and assisting two in nine games as the Cheetahs went on to lift the title. He has been just as prolific for the Free State side in the Challenge Cup, dotting down three times in three appearances. But it is not just his try-scoring attributes that have earned him a look in, as he has shown his accuracy with his lineout throws with the second-best success rate in the Currie Cup last year (93%), only behind Johan Grobbelaar.

However, his inclusion show that Erasmus and his coaching team are not ignoring the ‘smaller unions’ that are not participating in the URC.

It also illustrates the ridiculous talent pool that the Springboks can draw from locally in the four URC sides as well as the likes of the Cheetahs, Griquas and Pumas before they even go further down the ranks in the Currie Cup and youth levels. This while they also maintain the ability to select players based in Japan and Europe.

Test futures that look a bit iffy

These alignment camps might not be worth looking into too closely, but one has to wonder whether some of those who have represented the Springboks before and have not been invited still have a chance of playing Test rugby.

Aphelele Fassi hasn’t hit the highs he did in 2021 when he debuted for the Springboks, and at the age of 26, he should be nearing his peak and pressing for a claim as a starter for the Springboks. The same can be said of fellow Sharks teammate Curwin Bosch.

As Erasmus looks to the future of the hooker jumper behind Malcolm Marx as Mbonambi edges into the wrong side of his 30s, the absence of Joseph Dweba certainly raises a few questions. The Stormers front-rower was not called upon when Marx went down during the World Cup pool stages and is now not involved in Cape Town.

Meanwhile, Embrose Papier has not been invited either, despite his excellent form, but perhaps that just has to do with the ever-increasing scrum-half depth.

Scrum-half depth

After famously taking four scrum-halves to the 2023 World Cup, the Springboks are flexing their number nine depth once again, with two more uncapped scrum-halves invited to Cape Town.

The Lions duo of Sanele Nohamba and Morne van den Berg have been invited to the camp after starring for the Johannesburg-based side this season. Yes, Nohamba has been featuring at fly-half quite a bit, but his main position is in the number nine jumper. His versatility will certainly excite Erasmus, who pushed for the 7-1 split during the World Cup.

Jaden Hendrikse, Faf de Klerk and Grant Williams were three of the four scrum-halves that featured at the World Cup and have also been invited to the camp, and 2019 World Cup winner Herschel Jantjies joined them.

The sextet show just how deep the scrum-half depth is, with double World Cup winner Cobus Reinach also plying his trade in France.

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Deep depth

It’s not just the scrum-half riches but the overall squad depth, particularly when thinking about those contracted to overseas-based clubs and have not been invited.

Many feared the day that Duane Vermeulen hung up his boots, but the Bok number eight jersey looks in rude health with Jasper Wiese and Kwagga Smith bound to be in the squad and the likes of Dan du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez and even Ruan Ackermann competing in the Premiership. But the competition locally is just as fierce as Stormers duo Cameron Hanekom and Evan Roos are potential candidates invited to the camp along with Bulls powerhouse Elrigh Louw. Hacjivah Dayimani has been in stellar form but hasn’t been invited, which again doesn’t mean he can’t be capped this year, while the same is true for Lions number eight Francke Horn.

Number eight is just one of the positions where this is true, and with the youth pushing its way into the conversation, Springboks fans should be excited about what is to come. South Africa has always been blessed with talented players across the board, and this is just another indication of that.

More transparency from the Boks

Since Erasmus returned from Munster in 2018, there has been a clear shift in transparency around the Springboks and the team, with information much more readily available and provided than in the past.

We praised precisely that in this week’s Who’s hot and who’s not feature as SA Rugby CEO Rian Oberholzer explained the process of their advanced negotiations with a private equity firm, but it was on display again with the alignment camp members.

While SA Rugby would confirm that these camps would occur in the past, the list of attendees has not always been released, but that has changed. While fans may be outraged by some players earning an invite and others not, at least they are not in the dark as to who is going and who is not.

Long-term planning

It is clear to the players that Erasmus has invited that he is not just looking at the immediate future of the Springboks but the long-term one.

A player like Henco van Wyk is unlikely to usurp Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel in the pecking order for outside centre jerseys in the near future, but his invite, along with that of Suleiman Hartzenberg, suggests that Erasmus sees their potential. Meanwhile, Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu’s inclusion is certainly one that will be worth keeping an eye on whether he features at full-back, inside centre or at fly-half.

Again, there are multiple examples of this throughout the squad, notably Jan-Hendrik Wessells and Ruan Venter, who are still raw talents who have surely been invited as the coaches plan to provide insight and guidance as to how to improve their games.

It indicates that while Erasmus is only contracted until 2027 that he is planning for beyond then as well with the long-term future of the Springboks success in mind.

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