CAPE TOWN – Despite being in the job for more than a year, new Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber only met some of his players for the first time in the last week since celebrating the 2019 Rugby World Cup victory.
That underlined the importance of the ‘alignment camps’ that have been held over the last seven days around the country in preparation for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in July and August.
The fact that the Boks haven’t been in action, due to Covid-19, since beating England 32-12 in Yokohama on November 2, 2019 has meant that the pressure will be immense on Nienaber in his first series in charge.
While there are a couple of matches lined up before the Lions Tests – possible opponents are the United States, and either Scotland or Japan – the schedule doesn’t give Nienaber too much time to make sure everything is in place by July 24 at the FNB Stadium.
Having been the defence coach for a number of years under Rassie Erasmus’ watch, Nienaber will be familiar with most of the players, but a number of injuries may force him to bring in new blood.
Lock is a particularly worrisome position, with all of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman out of action for several weeks and months. Etzebeth picked up a finger injury just last week, which required surgery and has ruled him out for “many weeks”, according to his French club Toulon.
Snyman’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injury has seen him sidelined for over eight months already, but he has begun running again in recent weeks, while De Jager sustained a broken leg in training about two weeks ago, which could keep him off the field for three months.
That leaves only Franco Mostert – who is in Japan – as a fit lock from the World Cup squad. It is understood that young Stormers lock Salmaan Moerat has impressed Nienaber with his hard-working displays, while other second-rowers who could be considered include Bulls No 5 Ruan Nortjé and young Sharks No 4 JJ van der Mescht.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard and flank Pieter-Steph du Toit have also been out of the mix for a number of months.
“I would say the big part of these assemblies was the reality check exercise, to see where we are as a team, not just the players, but also the whole management – with that steering our focus to the areas we have to improve,” Nienaber said in a statement on Thursday.
“And another major objective was for the players to have a clear understanding of exactly what is required of them to be considered for Springbok section.
“Just meeting face-to-face was absolutely great, because I haven’t seen some of the players since the Rugby World Cup victory tour parade in November 2019.
✈️ First batch of local Springbok alignment camps done— Springboks (@Springboks) April 15, 2021
🗣️ "We gave them a schedule with as much detail as possible"
💻 Virtual sessions planned with overseas-based players
🔗 More here: https://t.co/pG3Hmh1wEG#StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/aPiXDkJGrc
“It (the alignment camps) was a reality check for us in terms of where we were in 2019 and where we are currently in 2021, and where we have to turn our focus towards and improve during our preparations.”
Having met players from the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Cheetahs, Nienaber and the rest of the Bok management were set to chat with the Japanese-based players online on Thursday, and will catch up with those in England and France next week.