As he returns to his role as head coach, Rassie Erasmus has a telling task to rebuild the Springboks squad as the new generation gets ushered in.
International rugby generally operates in a four-year cycle, but some prove to be more crucial than most, and for South Africa, this one certainly falls in that category.
Of the 35 World Cup winners in 2023, 22 featured in the 2019 Rugby World Cup victory and following the success in France, just one player has officially called time on their career – starting number eight in both finals, Duane Vermeulen.
This will inevitably create some tough conversations for returning head coach Erasmus, who takes on the role following Jacques Nienaber’s tenure in charge.
Since Erasmus and Nienaber returned to take control of the squad following Allister Coetzee’s sacking, they have had a consistent core of players through the eight years. When fit, the likes of Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx, Frans Malherbe, Willie le Roux, Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert and Damian de Allende have been regularly picked in the squad and in the matchday 23s.
However, this will need to change in the coming four years as many of those players head into their 30s or, in some cases, are already in them. Sure, the improvements in strength and conditioning and player welfare since the game has gone professional have meant that many players have extended their careers deep into the 30s, but unfortunately, not all will be able to do so and still maintain a high standard.
The Boks will be aiming to have a similar age and international experience profile for the tournament in Australia in four years’ time.
Erasmus himself understands this, stating as much in a recent interview with Rapport.
“He [Eben Etzebeth] is so athletic, but I don’t know if he still has another World Cup in him,” Erasmus said, as he admitted that the Springboks have got to address the depth in certain positions in their squad.
5444 – Since his debut v Australia in 2012, only Eben Etzebeth (7697) and Willie Le Roux (6362) have played more minutes for the @Springboks than Duane Vermeulen – Vermeulen has also won the joint-most turnovers of any Tier 1 No.8 in that period (66, also Kieran Read). Thor. pic.twitter.com/RxjdFj9IxD
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) November 8, 2023
Erasmus will be wary of falling into the same trap that former head coach Heyneke Meyer did during his tenure between 2012 and 2015. Meyer regularly selected the experienced campaigners and did not sufficiently blood through the next generation until injuries forced his hand.
Among the 35 players who featured in the Springboks’ squad during the World Cup, 20 are 30 years old or older, while a further nine are 29 or 28.
While a World Cup squad can certainly accommodate a veteran or two who are deep into their 30s, too many of them can be detrimental to the side.
Many of those nine players aged 28 or 29 could still be at the peak of their performance come the 2027 World Cup and may well be crucial starters for the side over the next few years. But the big challenge for Erasmus will be when to pull the selection trigger and have the tough conversations with some of those players.
New faces in the pack
Deon Fourie had a sensational World Cup, but at 37, his international career may be a short one as South Africa builds more depth at hooker and starts bringing through their talented back-rowers.
South Africa certainly has several bright prospects at hooker in the URC squads, and while Marx (29) still has time on his side, the same is perhaps not true for Bongi Mbonambi (32) as the Boks will need to build experience for the likes of Joseph Dweba, Johan Grobbelaar and others.
Staying with the front-row and Ox Nche (29) was the only Bok prop under the age of 30 at the 2023 World Cup. Perhaps the likes of Kitshoff (31) or Malherbe (32) could get another World Cup under their belt, but sticking with them, Vincent Koch (33) and Trevor Nyakane (34) would be detrimental for post-2027.
🇿🇦 Ox Nche: South Africa's semi-final hero. 👏 pic.twitter.com/T7bAc6AYKc
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) October 21, 2023
Erasmus said in that interview that they will need to build lock depth in the coming years, having noted that Etzebeth may not make another World Cup. Whether he does or not, RG Snyman was the only second-rower under 30 years old – also including regular starter Lood de Jager. Salmaan Moerat is a long-term option for the side and a possible future captain.
Kolisi hinted in his autobiography that he might hang up his boots after the World Cup but has since confirmed that he will still make himself available for selection when he links up with Racing 92.
This is possibly Erasmus’ biggest call, as the inspirational 32-year-old captain may not be the man to lead the side by the next tournament. There is no doubting his quality, particularly his leadership, but Kolisi has had some serious injuries during his career. The same applies to the sensational Du Toit (31).
Jasper Wiese and Marco van Staden provide the Boks with great options in the back-row going forward, but will that be the case for 30-year-old Kwagga Smith, too?
Jaden Hendrikse and Grant Williams look primed to assume the scrum-half roles for the side going forward, and the future of the half-backs appears in good hands with Handre Pollard and Manie Libbok in the right age profile to compete at a fourth and second World Cup, respectively.
In fact, it is mostly in the Springbok pack where most of the new faces will need to appear. Stormers’ rising star Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu is bound to enjoy a long career in Green and Gold and offers similar versatility to Damian Willemse, who at just 25 has won two World Cups.
Sooner or later?
Erasmus will certainly have to make a call sooner rather than later on Le Roux (34) and Makazole Mapimpi (33), but the questions over Cheslin Kolbe (30) and De Allende (31) are less pressing.
For De Allende, in particular, the Boks have a ready-made replacement in Andre Esterhuizen (29), with fellow centres Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel both the same age as Esterhuizen. With Canan Moodie still only 21, the midfield is still in rude health, with youngsters like Henco van Wyk and Feinberg-Mngomezulu already making strong claims for a call-up.
— BKT United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) October 21, 2023
A complete and immediate overhaul in year one is not a necessity for the Springboks to build on their success over the past eight years, but Erasmus will be aware that the ageing squad does need to be freshened up.
Perhaps he will use his first year back in full control as the yardstick to judge many of the 30-plus players and select matchday squads, much like the clashes against Wales in 2018 and 2022 to test players.
He certainly has options at his disposal. The likes of Elrigh Louw, Evan Roos, Francke Horn and others are lining up to compete with Wiese to fill Vermeulen’s boots. Meanwhile, Thomas du Toit is inching to get an extended run in the Boks squad, as is Wilco Louw and Ntuthuko Mchunu.
There are prospects littered throughout the South African URC teams and abroad, just waiting to be introduced to the big stage, which makes the next cycle all the more exciting for the team.