French-based Boks 'will aid RWC 2023 drive'

Cheslin Kolbe (Getty Images)
Cheslin Kolbe (Getty Images)

South Africa's bid to retain the Webb Ellis Cup in 2023 should be greatly helped by the number of stalwart Springboks who either ply or have recently plied their professional trades in France.

That is the view of dual Springbok and SA Sevens player Vlok Cilliers, currently serving as kicking consultant to the French national team for the entire period to the next World Cup on those shores.

Cilliers has been aiding head coach Fabien Galthie - a former playing ally with Western Province in the mid-1990s - throughout the 2020 Six Nations, recently cut short toward the end by the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.

While RWC 2023 hosting rights were cruelly snatched from beneath South Africa's own noses by the French, Cilliers says the Boks have no special reason at this stage to be pensive about their chances of earning back-to-back successes for the first time.

The 2019 winners in Japan had earlier claimed their second of three World Cup trophy triumphs on French turf in 2007, a heartening development in itself with 2023 in mind.

But Cilliers says it will go beyond that, citing the number of notably core Boks currently - or in one or two cases until recently - employed by clubs in the French Top 14 competition.

"That will help the Springboks massively as they gradually build up to the next World Cup," he told Sport24.

"Many of the South African players contracted to French clubs are also among the players Rassie (Erasmus) and Jacques Nienaber have had special faith in recently at Test level, so they will provide increasing knowledge to their Bok colleagues on French players they have played with and against regularly, as well as on French conditions.

"It is a unique rugby country in several respects, including obviously the different-language issue to most others in the rugby world and the challenges of their night-time play whenever it is particularly cold and with the going heavy."

A glance at the relevant players underlines Cilliers's point.

The standout current Springboks pursuing their careers in France include, for example, Eben Etzebeth, the first-choice lock in the Bok mix for several years and holder of 85 caps.

After being a staunch Newlands-based servant to both the Stormers and Western Province for eight years between 2012 and 2019, the hard man of the second row signed up for glamour outfit Toulon on a two-year deal; he is in his first season there, albeit one currently suspended by the crisis.

Another player in a renowned "spinal" berth in any rugby team, flyhalf Handre Pollard, also switched pro allegiance to the northern hemisphere recently, joining Montpellier from the Bulls on three-year terms which will take him close to RWC 2023.

Versatile back-three dynamo Cheslin Kolbe, a darling of the French rugby public for his flair-laden and elusive style of play and scorer of the second Bok try in the World Cup 2019 final against England, has been firmly established with Toulouse since 2017.

The list goes beyond that if you add in names like Steven Kitshoff and Jan Serfontein, and veterans Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn.

Loosehead prop Kitshoff - now the frontline candidate for the No 1 jersey since the Test retirement of Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira - spent an insightful period between 2015 and 2017 on the books of Bordeaux.

Former Bulls midfielder and once SA U20 wunderkind Serfontein has been with Montpellier since 2017. While out of the Test picture since late that same year, when he started a narrow 25-24 defeat to the All Blacks at Newlands, the 26-year-old still has time on his side for a recall as his talent is hardly in doubt.

Rugged No 8 Vermeulen, now 33, is likelier to be targeting the British and Irish Lions series next season as a Bok swansong, although if he were to have another World Cup stab - he was a shining light in the Japan-staged RWC conquest - the knowledge of the French landscape earned in his Toulon career (2015-18) would come in extremely useful.

Cilliers did warn, however, that the French themselves plan a major home assault on RWC 2023 after ending the last one on their terrain (2007) as 14-9 losing semi-finalists to England.

"(French rugby chief) Bernard Laporte had a meeting with the French coaching staff in the lead-up to the big England crunch in the recent Six Nations: he reminded everyone how special it was to be working in a cycle where you know it ends with a World Cup in your own territory.

"He pledged to give whatever was needed to assist the cause - financial, whatever - in finally winning a home-staged World Cup.

"He gave the impression 'this is our last chance ... do well in this one, or bust'."

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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