Springboks

Springbok selectors' jobs get harder … as NZ's become easier

Jacques Nienaber (Gallo Images)
Jacques Nienaber (Gallo Images)
  • Super Rugby Aotearoa has been like an enduring, highly revealing "All Black trial" for NZ's national brains trust.
  • Every week sees high-calibre individual tussles that help establish Test positional pecking orders.
  • By contrast, with (inactive) Bok players being so widely scattered geographically, it makes selection by the world champions increasingly tricky.

Just imagine if a Springbok side had to be hastily assembled to face the old southern enemy, the All Blacks, in a fortnight or thereabouts?

It won't happen, of course: New Zealand are in the engrossing throes of an all-domestic competition, Super Rugby Aotearoa, with no clear indication yet of exactly when their national team will come out of the blocks again.

The public there won't be in any special hurry … grateful simply that rugby is alive and kicking again, with unrestricted stadium crowds allowed and a thrilling, truly "strength versus strength" set of derbies on the go.

Back in South Africa, meanwhile, the game currently drifts even more distantly behind its NZ equivalent, with full franchise squad training not having resumed at this point due to the ongoing coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Even the most optimistic SA scenarios currently only envisage a return to competitive action in late August - at the earliest.

But if that strictly hypothetical, "sudden" Test match between the two great nations (three-time World Cup winners, each) were to take place very shortly, the Bok brains trust would have reason to feel massively hard done by in getting their ducks in a row.

Just for starters, and even taking aside the huge imbalance in pure rugby readiness, the All Black selectors would have had three crackerjack weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa evidence so far to use as yardsticks in team composition: The tournament has been like a full-blooded, highly informative NZ trial exercise, and that won't change for several weeks to come.

Three of the six matches to this point have been decided by margins of five points or fewer, and the most lopsided result hasn't even really been that, as the Crusaders only ran away with things late to beat the Hurricanes by a deceptive 14 points just over a week ago (39-25).

Their enormous head start on all Sanzaar major rivals to returning to competitive rugby isn't the only reason New Zealand have reason to be currently smug, however.

Every weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa, without fail, brings the promise of one-on-one duels that provide rich insight to new head coach Ian Foster and lieutenants about rightful pecking orders to any positions in the national team that can be considered up for grabs.

Take the latest round as an example: In the Blues versus Highlanders match on Saturday, All Black incumbent blindside flank Shannon Frizell went up against another international contender for the jersey in Akira Ioane.

In a climate where the national side will be deprived of stalwart bruiser Brodie Retallick for two years as he takes an agreed sabbatical in Japan, there was also the mouth-watering tussle between rival No 4 lock aspirants Patrick Tuipulotu, the Blues captain, and emerging Highlanders star Pari Pari Parkinson.

Meanwhile, in Sunday's equally tight fixture between the Crusaders and Chiefs in Christchurch, the rising Will Jordan went into battle with ever-slippery Damian McKenzie at fullback, Jack Goodhue went head to head with Anton Lienert-Brown at inside centre, and loosehead prop Joe Moody directly grappled at scrum time Nepo Laulala, the No 3 he had scrummed down with the last time New Zealand played (in the bronze playoff against Wales at RWC 2019).

So the fact that Super Rugby in that country has come down to an "all derbies" situation must be manna from heaven in several respects for helping to determine Test berths at some stage later (hopefully) in the year.

Apart from that advantage, the All Black masterminds will know that new Bok head coach Jacques Nienaber and those closest to him have it tougher because of how increasingly widely scattered their core personnel are across the planet.

Whereas All Black cap-seeking players are still required by policy to be domestically based from a franchise point of view, South Africa are now at liberty – through necessity, given just how many players have taken lucrative overseas club deals – to pick their Test representatives from wherever they are housed professionally.

While reassuring from a depth of quality resources point of view, it makes it increasingly difficult for the Bok selectors to know which players really are worthiest of the major Test slots, given the widely differing standards of the landscapes where they are based.

Apart from the increasingly more threadbare but still important domestic franchise environment, Nienaber and company have to try to stay abreast of form, conditioning and general levels of rugby appetite among Bok contenders in such widely scattered geographical environments as Ireland, England, France and Japan.

For how dispersed the current, premier troops are, here is a reminder of the latest country locations of the victorious Bok match-day 23 which began the memorable RWC 2019 final against England back on 2 November:

15 Willie le Roux (Japan), 14 Cheslin Kolbe (France), 13 Lukhanyo Am (SA), 12 Damian de Allende (Ireland), 11 Makazole Mapimpi (Japan, imminently), 10 Handre Pollard (France), 9 Faf de Klerk (England), 8 Duane Vermeulen (SA), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit (SA), 6 Siya Kolisi (SA), 5 Lood de Jager (England), 4 Eben Etzebeth (France), 3 Frans Malherbe (SA), 2 Bongi Mbonambi (SA), 1 Tendai Mtawarira (retired).

Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx (Japan), 17 Steven Kitshoff (SA), 18 Vincent Koch (England), 19 RG Snyman (Ireland), 20 Franco Mostert (Japan), 21 Francois Louw (retired), 22 Herschel Jantjies (SA), 23 Frans Steyn (SA).

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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