Springboks: Who Rassie Erasmus could turn to with Damian Willemse sidelined

Jared Wright
Split image of Willie Le Roux, Quan Horn, Apehelele Fassi and Damian Willemse.

Rassie Erasmus is not short on options with Damian Willemse sidelined.

The Springboks have been dealt a hammer blow ahead of the international season, with Damian Willemse set to miss the July Tests and the Rugby Championship.

Reports in South Africa stated that he damaged ligaments in his finger and will be sidelined for up to four months, meaning he will only return in time for the November internationals.

With this in mind, we take a look at the options Rassie Erasmus have at his disposal for the fullback position.

Willemse is renowned for his versatility, and while he featured at fly-half and fullback for the Springboks last year, he was mainly favoured in the latter, starting all the World Cup knockout matches in the position.

A lot will also depend on what new attack coach Tony Brown wants from the fullback position, with different styles and approaches from the player selected for the role, but there are plenty of candidates vying for the role.

Front runners

There are opportunities against Wales and Portugal for an uncapped player to be eased into international rugby, but Erasmus will not likely be throwing an inexperienced fullback out against Ireland.

That means that Willie Le Roux will most likely be moved right to the front of the queue for the first two Test matches in South Africa as he edges ever closer to 100 caps for the Springboks. The veteran fullback may have lost his starting role to Willemse last year, but he is still held in incredibly high regard by not only the staff but the players too. Still, he is doing the business on the pitch and has transformed the Bulls’ attack this season. He will certainly not let the Boks down in the two Test matches.

If not Le Roux, then Cheslin Kolbe will also be right at the front of the coaches’ selection debate for the fullback role. Kolbe has regularly played fullback throughout his career at the Stormers, Toulouse and Toulon but has started just one Test match there for the Boks, against Ireland in 2022.

The Springboks have handy wing options, too, so moving Kolbe to fullback is certainly on the cards unless new defence coach Jerry Flannery insists that his astute defensive attributes are wasted in the 15 jumper.

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In the mix

Versatility has been valued highly with the Springboks under Erasmus and the next two options could well be starting for the Springboks even if it is not at fullback.

Kurt-Lee Arendse fills the role for the Bulls when Le Roux is unavailable or rested and has shifted into the position in game for the Boks. He has been in incredible form for the Bulls this season and is bound to be selected for the series against Ireland and is the mix for the number 15 jumper but if he isn’t starting there, he should be filling a wing spot.

His fellow teammate is in a similar position as Canan Moodie could be asked to step into the fullback role, which has performed in for the Bulls in the past. He has been tipped for a future in the centres with the Springboks and potentially on the wing but his aerial ability and the counter-attacking threat he poses make him a handy option in the number 15 jersey too.

On the fringe

The Springbok alignment camps have given some insight into Erasmus’ thinking and with Aphelele Fassi included recently, the Sharks back could earn his first cap since 2022.

He has been a standout for the Durban-based side despite their underwhelming URC form and a driving force in their run to the Challenge Cup final. His form warrants a recall, and if he starts against Wales at Twickenham, he could do so again when the Boks return to South Africa to tackle Ireland.

But Fassi will have stiff competition from fellow alignment camp attendee Quan Horn. The Lions’ 15 has continually impressed since making his debut for the side, but this season has been arguably his finest, and he has caught the eye of the selectors. He offers a rather unique option to Erasmus, with his game moulded largely in the same fashion as Ireland’s Hugo Keenan. With blistering pace, he is a serious counter-attacking threat but is still solid under the high ball and kicks well out of hand. At 22, he still has plenty of time to improve and if he isn’t getting a look in against Ireland, don’t be surprised if he is capped in 2024.

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Outside bets

Like many of the positions in the Springboks squad, the depth runs deep and that is emphasised with the 11-Test Warrick Gelant not seen as a front-runner.

The 2019 World Cup winner fell out of favour with the squad after his move to France, and his stint with Racing 92in the Top 14 did not really work out for him.

He has rediscovered some great form upon his return to the Stormers but has played second fiddle to Willemse when the latter was not plugging the injury holes in the centres for John Dobson’s side. Still, a recall would not be overly surprising.

Staying with the Stormers and while Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to be involved with the Springboks squad in 2024, his unfortunate run of injuries limits the likelihood of him starting against Ireland. As far as a like-for-like replacement for Willemse goes, Feinberg-Mngomezulu ticks all the boxes except for experience. It’s unlikely he starts or features against Ireland, but not impossible, and if he can stay fit, a Test debut is undoubtedly on the cards in 2024.

Meanwhile, Harlequins star Tyrone Green qualifies for England next year and has enjoyed yet another sensational season in the Premiership and Investec Champions Cup. The Springboks could select the ex-SA U20 back to prevent England from doing so next year as, frankly, his form has been more than good enough to warrant a maiden call-up.

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Wild cards

With Handre Pollard set to be fit for the series against Ireland, there is an outside chance that the Bok coaches could turn to another playmaker in the fullback jersey in the form of Manie Libbok or Johan Goosen.

Libbok played fullback at the Sharks and Bulls during his career and could do so again as a fantastic double-threat kicking and playmaking option to the backline.

The same applies to Bulls fly-half Goosen, who has also played fullback during his career and has started in the role for the Springboks in the past. He has been in stellar form for Jake White’s side and with experience at Test level, he could earn a recall to the squad.

Finally, in-form Bulls star David Kriel could get his first shot at the Springboks jersey at fullback. He is another versatile star, having played on the wing and in both centre roles for the Bulls this season. He previously played at fullback and could be a real dark horse for the position.

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