Africa-Press – Liberia. Foreign-based Springboks returning for Test service next month are likely to still be heavily drawn from the RWC 2019 squad.Some will have several weeks’ advantage over others in terms of rejuvenating time off ahead of the Georgia series.The rehab status of Boks currently inactive through injury like Lood de Jager and RG Snyman will be of special interest to Jacques Nienaber.
Prime example of “tough gig”: the Springbok brains trust trying to keep suitable tabs on their far-and-wide, collective playing assets. Of all the frontline powers, South Africa’s high-calibre playing stocks are probably the most prolifically scattered around the globe, making routine monitoring of their fortunes and workloads outside of Tests a trickier exercise than for any other country.
As quickly as the nation holding the Webb Ellis Cup develops fresh young talent, so, too, does the drip-drip of reputable players away from our shores to attractive contracts north of the equator remorselessly continue.
The last few months of domestic action during the pandemic climate have been cleverly staggered in rugby load terms for local players – a deft balance has been struck between duty within the white lines and essential feet-up periods.
But while few home-based Boks should enter the mid-year Test period – two against Georgia, three against the prestigious British and Irish Lions – in a dangerously overplayed state, less controllable is the condition foreign-based stars will arrive in.
Given bio-bubble considerations, head coach Jacques Nienaber is expected to call up a squad of close to 50 players, potentially with up to 20 of them coming from overseas clubs – and a very heavy emphasis likely on those who were part of the victorious World Cup squad in Japan in late 2019.
That is not least because the world champions are in the extraordinary position of not having played for some 20 months, by the time they tackle the Georgia Tests in early July.
Here is a stocktake, then, of the relevant, currently-in-Bok-favour players from abroad who should filter back shortly, keeping in mind that Francois Louw (Bath) has now retired and Makazole Mapimpi returned to Durban a few days ago after a sabbatical-type spell from the Sharks with NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes:
Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears, Japan)
Always running neck-and-neck with Bongi Mbonambi in the Bok pecking order, the broad-shouldered hooker has completed his Japanese duties for the time being, as the Spears were knocked out of the Top League semis by Suntory Sungoliath on Sunday. Following successive campaigns in the moderate-rigour environment of Japan (first with Shining Arcs), his body should be well primed and rested for the Bok season.
Vincent Koch (Saracens, England)
The blond tighthead has been rotated fairly judiciously by Sarries, while they negotiate the limited exertions – after enforced Premiership relegation due to salary-related improprieties – of life in the second-rung RFU Championship. Their latest win in the charge for fast bounce-back was another cakewalk (69-12) against Ampthill on Monday night. They have two more league obligations, to 29 May, and then are highly likely participants in a two-leg final, with promotion the big carrot, all ending around 19 June – probably a fortnight before the Boks play the first Test against Georgia.
Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks, England)
Maybe the biggest injury-related concern, still, of all the key overseas Boks. The lanky lock has had a double blow in recent months, first experiencing another shoulder problem (an old bogey for him) but then, seemingly well on the mend with his Premiership outfit, suffering a meniscus tear in a leg during a lineout drill in training early last month. But he is a gritty odds-defier and trying as hard as possible to make the cut for the Lions. With his northern season almost certainly done for him, though, there will be a risk of rustiness even if he wins the race against time.
Eben Etzebeth (Toulon, France)
As long as he has no further mishaps, the most vital, hard-edged and experienced of all the Bok locks could hit the ground running for the national cause. In some ways, his recent finger injury was “ideal” as it meant an enforced break of several weeks from early April for a player always at the punishing heart of the engine-room conflict. Heartening, then, was his
reportedly industrious, full 80 minutes in a first start back for Toulon at the weekend, despite the loss to Clermont in the Top 14. The Bok masterminds will be secretly pleased that the customary heavyweights lie mid-table at this late stage, so Etzebeth is unlikely to see any knockout-phase action before his return to home turf for most of June and an emphasis on rest and conditioning.
Franco Mostert (Honda Heat, Japan)
The Bok hierarchy won’t sweat too much about the famously workaholic lock (and sometimes blindside flanker): he is near-legendary for his durability and resistance to serious injury. Mostert is now through with his engagements to the Japanese outfit, after another yeoman personal campaign. Despite his best efforts, the Heat won only one of seven conference matches, so were never at the races for knockout berths and he gets a solid feet-up spell now.
RG Snyman (Munster, Ireland)
The towering, 2.06m figure, well capable of duty in both lock positions, is another touch and go element of the Bok plans for mid-year. Like De Jager, he was well on the mend from a long-term injury – the ACL tear he suffered early on his debut for Munster last August – only for a complication to arise early this month, requiring further (though relatively minor) surgery. While unlikely to sniff further club action in 2020/21, Snyman hasn’t yet been written off for Lions combat.
Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Jubilo, Japan)
Last active at both Test and Super Rugby level in 2019, livewire loose forward Smith should be running around like a spring chicken in the Springbok training camp. The X-factor player, his skills only deepened by his rich SA Sevens experience, played most recently for a Jubilo side who ended a humdrum sixth out of eight in their conference, so well outside “KO” obligations.
Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks, England)
The tenacious little scrumhalf has been a trademark figure for Sale during the 2020/21 campaign, where the SA-heavy side currently lie a healthy second to runaway leaders Bristol. He played almost an hour at the weekend of their triumph over Bath. They have three more game to completion of the league roster on 12 June – but De Klerk may just be tied up in the UK right until the Premiership final, scheduled for Twickenham on 26 June, so not ideal for Bok purposes.
Cobus Reinach (Montpellier, France)
The seasoned, Bok squad scrumhalf has likely involvement in the European Challenge Cup final to look forward to at Twickenham on Friday night, with a 10 000 crowd permissible as his French club play English side Leicester. It’s a good “pressure” opportunity for the nippy former Sharks-based favourite at this stage, given that Montpellier’s Top 14 season has fizzled toward a fairly lowly finish … so he will be free for Bok purposes from early June, some four revitalising weeks ahead of the 2021 Test agenda kicking.
Elton Jantjies (Pau, France)
The stalwart Lions flyhalf (19 points off the tee against Racing 92 last weekend, despite defeat) only joined the labouring French club in mid-April as a late-season “medical joker”… meaning a few weeks of keeping the long-time main back-up to Test regular Handre Pollard at an agreeably high level of competition, without taxing him too excessively. Also, with Pau only one spot off the basement position, his season there will end by 5 June – when they ironically play Pollard’s Montpellier.
Handre Pollard (Montpellier, France)
One of the most gratifying sights for Nienaber and company in recent months will have been the relatively early resurfacing of ace, direct-playing pivot Pollard to competitive action after his (second career) ACL knee misfortune last September. He played off the bench at the start of the month as Montpellier booked their place in the afore-mentioned Champions Cup final (see Reinach) by seeing off Bath, and every minute he gets on the park from here to the end of the French season will be like manna from heaven for his Bok prep purposes, rekindling the necessary sharpness and confidence.
Damian de Allende (Munster, Ireland)
The sturdy Bok inside centre has been a key figure for the Irish heavyweights this season, with his bruising carries and line-breaks, so there may be some degree of concern back home about fatigue possibilities ahead of the massive Lions series. Munster have just been upset 24-20 by compatriots Connacht in the Rainbow Cup, but will remain good bets to crack the supposed cross-hemisphere final of the competition on 19 June, perhaps giving 47-Test cap De Allende a fortnight to steel himself for Georgia.
Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles, Japan)
The midfielder and sometimes fullback is ready to turn his thoughts fully to Test squad loyalty … his Eagles side ended their Japanese conference with a 50 percent record (three wins, three losses, one draw) so not required for last-four purposes.
Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse, France)
The game-breaking maestro, still one of the most talked-about backline names in world rugby, sat out action last weekend … rested (pleasing news for the Bok honchos) ahead of Saturday’s glamour European Champions Cup final against
compatriots La Rochelle. But Toulouse are still flying high atop the Top 14, meaning Kolbe could be tied up until 25 June when the domestic showpiece is played. A rest from at least the first Test against Georgia, then, is possible for him.
Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz, Japan)
The mercurial fullback suffered the same fate as co-Springbok Marx last weekend: knocked out of the semi-finals of the Top League. That means the 31-year-old has several free weeks from here to ready himself for Test duty; he should be mentally and physically in pristine shape for the Boks, even as a stern challenger like Aphelele Fassi soldiers on in the Rainbow Cup for the Sharks.