State of the Nation: Improved Springboks can offer a meaningful World Cup defence in France

Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber and Damian Willemse after a Test against England. Credit: Alamy
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber and Damian Willemse after a Test against England. Credit: Alamy

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the nations. Next up, South Africa.

Coach Jacques Nienaber’s Springboks have endured an up-and-down year in terms of results, but the team’s continuous drive to be better and improve has paid off.

The Autumn Nations Series was challenging for the world champions, which began with tricky fixtures against the world’s best side Ireland and Grand Slam champions, France, before facing a flying Italy and a hot and cold England.

With two wins from four and both losses within a few points, there is certainly a positive energy about the Springboks again, but where exactly does this stem from?

Number crunch

The Boks played 13 Tests in 2022, winning eight at a 61.5% win rate, including memorable victories against the All Blacks, Wallabies and England along the way.

Naturally, fans would want more wins as the Boks are expected to triumph every time they take to the field. Still, all things considered, the win rate is good enough, especially as the team ended the year on a high after dominating England last weekend and earning their first win at Twickenham in eight years.

On the attacking front, Nienaber’s men, who have long been criticised for being boring, scored a total of 43 tries at an average of 3.3 per game whilst failing to score in only one clash when the South Africans lost to Wales in July. Reasonable numbers for a team so pragmatic, although it is fair to note that this statistic is inflated by a rampant performance against Italy that included 10 tries.

The Boks’ discipline was decent this year, averaging 10.9 penalties conceded per Test. However, it is always an area to search for improvement as referees continue to play a bigger role in the outcome of matches in rugby union.

Player management

The initial squad selection prior to the Wales series in July was solid but questionable in its distribution between positions. Only two fly-halves in Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies were selected, whilst five scrum-halves made the wider squad, a decision that, in retrospect, invited the crisis faced at 10 later on the season.

Once Pollard was injured for an extended period, and Jantjies’ exploits off the field made the pair unavailable. Nienaber turned to Damian Willemse without initially calling up a specialist fly-half, and the 24-year-old performed adequately in the role to start. But a concussion saw Frans Steyn start against Argentina in the final round of the Rugby Championship, where the Boks needed to chase a big score, and the spark failed to ignite.

Finally, Manie Libbok was called up for the Autumn Nations Series, but Nienaber made it clear that Willemse was the first choice and stuck with the Stormer throughout despite wide criticism, from myself included, after Libbok showed promising signs at Test level.

Ultimately, Nienaber had the last laugh as Willemse produced a blockbuster performance against England at Twickenham, justifying his continued selection at 10. Credit to the Bok management for being bold, and Willemse took to social media to thank Nienaber for his faith following the Twickenham win.

Without a specialist at 10 the Boks had to innovate, relying on the wonderful partnership between Willemse and Willie le Roux to inject some venom into the South African attack. The pair often switched roles and began to exploit defensive lines effectively. It was a brilliant tactical call that resulted in some majestic tries, much like Kurt-Lee Arendse’s against England. However, despite the developments, kicking for goal still remains a concern.

Nienaber was not only bold in his handling of the fly-half crisis but throughout the year, given the large group of players used, offering experience to fringe players and growing them within their structures.

Changing 14 of the starting XV for the second Test against Wales was a brave move, and despite the loss, both answered questions and offered upcoming stars a foothold to work with as they navigate the highest level.

Easily the biggest winner from that game is Arendse, who has now scored seven tries in seven Tests and has World Cup-winning Makazole Mapimpi seriously worried about his spot in the team. The Bulls star is a massive find and will only continue to grow.

Moving into a World Cup year

Ending the year on a high against England has been massive for the Boks in so many ways. Momentum is everything in Test rugby, as we have seen with France and Ireland.

All of a sudden, the picture has become a lot more clear. Nienaber’s tactical moves throughout the year started showing results and forced the rugby fraternity to double-take as the Boks are starting to look like a team that could defend the World Cup.

Of course, that is no mean feat, and it took a perfect All Blacks team to do it, but the sense of belief is certainly on the up and a Boks team that believes and has their fans collectively behind them is a dangerous team. The players often speak of unity and togetherness, and that is because the power of a collective can achieve great things, as the 2019 triumph showcased.

Nienaber spent much of the year without Pollard and Lukhanyo Am, two stars a coach would not want to miss. However, it was certainly a blessing in disguise as the duo had barely any competition in their positions. Fly-half is a work in progress, but at 13, Jesse Kriel, despite criticism of my own, stepped up brilliantly, particularly against Ireland, and proved he does have a place at Test level.

A headache will partially mask the excitement of the pair’s eventual return for Nienaber. Am will slot straight back in, no questions asked. But given the rise of the Willemse-Le Roux axis and its elevated attacking output, how does the coach fit Pollard in without compromising the duo or the rock-solid Damian de Allende at 12?

It is a fantastic problem to have and one that adds further to the excitement of a Boks’ side that has finally evolved.

Verdict

Despite a great deal of frustration during the year, 2022 has been a good one for the Boks. Nienaber and his management clearly worked tremendously hard behind the scenes, sticking to their guns and ultimately moving the side forward.

The Boks now have an experienced side with a core of players who have won the World Cup and kicked on, led by the inspirational skipper Siya Kolisi amongst others, who continues to grow as a leader and a player.

Whilst the team is not perfect, it is clear to see that the Boks are trending upwards and doing so at the right time.

Suppose the South Africans can avoid off-field issues that need no further discussion and continue how they are trending. In that case, Nienaber’s men can certainly put together a meaningful title defence at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

READ MORE: Opinion: Springboks facing healthy but complicated backline selection conundrum

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