Cape Town - There may be over six months – 185 days, to be exact – to go to the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland, but the competition for places is red-hot at the moment.
The defending champions will kick off their Pool B campaign at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Sunday, September 10, and also face Romania, Ireland and Tonga.
Before that, of course, is the shortened Rugby Championship, which starts on July 8 against the Wallabies in Pretoria, and three further World Cup warm-up Tests against Argentina, Wales and the All Blacks.
The training camp that will conclude in Stellenbosch this week was vital in creating the building blocks for France 2023, but now those 14 players in attendance – as well as a number of other strong candidates – will return to United Rugby Championship action on March 24-25 to state their case to Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus.
“With the way that we planned way back in 2018 and the way we tackled things there… I remember still on that end-of-year tour when we went to England. We played England there and lost in the last minute with the André Esterhuizen tackle, we had Damian (Willemse) in one of his first few matches at fullback, we had Ivan van Zyl at scrumhalf…” Erasmus said.
“We only had one nine in Faf, and we were (trying to look at) Ivan and a few other guys. I think there are six scrumhalves now lining up, who are pushing really hard. I think there are three or four flyhalves that are really (pushing hard) – there are guys who can play 10 and 12.
“That’s not to say we are in a better position, because all the other countries would have evolved and get better – look at Ireland, look at Scotland. But I think the age-bracket of our players, the handling of pressure, being there before…
“But you know how the game goes: two guys go down… Look at the Bulls – two flyhalves go down and all of a sudden, it’s like a crisis at flyhalf for them.
“So, the thing can change quickly, but where we want to be, we are not far off currently. But there are still a few months to go.”
Nienaber added: “It will be nice to see how they kick on now. They will be back at their franchises, and it will be good to see the stuff that we implemented in the camp, coming through now.
“And like Rassie mentioned, there is good competition within the group. So, these players will have to kick on at their franchises.”
The flyhalf situation is far from cut-and-dried. Handre Pollard was the usual first-choice No 10 before his injury woes kept him sidelined for long periods last year, but he has hit top form for Leicester since his return over the last weeks.
Elton Jantjies has finally enjoyed regular game-time at French second division side Agen following a forgettable 2022 on and off the field, and the Bok coaches seem to have a soft spot for him – but will that be enough to warrant selection?
Of course, the best flyhalf based in South Africa over the last two years has been Stormers pivot Manie Libbok, who has continued his excellent form this season.
Libbok has the all-round attacking and kicking game that Pollard and Jantjies may lack, but his lack of experience may see him start the international season lower down the pecking order.
Then there’s the curious case of Damian Willemse, who was recognised as the No 1 flyhalf on the end-of-year tour, but whom the Bok bosses regard as a better fullback.
The scrumhalf battle is also a fierce one. Japan-based Faf de Klerk is the man in possession of the No 9 jersey, but Sharks halfback Jaden Hendrikse’s solid kicking game has made him a real contender too.
Then there’s the blisteringly quick Grant Williams, also from the Sharks, who has scored some outstanding tries in recent months and has the X-factor to put the heat on the defence.
France-based Cobus Reinach is in the scrumhalf mix too, with his 2019 experience a factor to consider as well.
With only 33 places available in the final squad, it’s all to play for in the URC, Champions Cup and other competitions over the next few months …