- Former Springbok assistant coach Alan Solomons assesses how the Springboks navigated the recently concluded Test season and reveals his choice for the World Player of the Year.
- The ex-Southern Kings Director of Rugby talks about Siya Kolisi’s remarkable rise in the game and why he felt the Springbok captain’s move to the Sharks made complete sense.
- The current Worcester Warriors Director of Rugby also explores the challenges the South African teams have faced in the United Rugby Championship and the ongoing player drain.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the Springboks’ 2021 season?
Alan Solomons: I believe the Springboks did really well (South Africa ended the season with an 8-5 win-loss record) and navigated a long, difficult season. Unlike other national teams this year, they tackled the British & Irish Lions over three matches and did really well to come home in that series. After consecutive Tests against Argentina in South Africa, the men in green and gold had to play their remaining Rugby Championship fixtures against Australia and New Zealand in Australia, which was no mean feat. The Springboks came third in the Rugby Championship, but they finished strongly and I felt they should have beaten the All Blacks in the penultimate Test and fully deserved their win in the final Test against the same opposition. On the end-of-year tour, the Boks earned good victories against Wales and Scotland and, if I’m honest, I think they were unlucky to lose against England. If Handre Pollard had his kicking boots on, South Africa would certainly have won that Test.
Sport24 asked: Your take on the criticism aimed at their playing style?
Alan Solomons: Critics have hit out at the Springboks’ “negative” and “one-dimensional” style of play. However, Test rugby is about winning. The Boks have said to themselves, “This is a formula that is going to produce results for us and we’re going to stick to it.” I think it’s very difficult to criticise that when they’ve got the results. They deservedly won the World Cup, which was a fantastic achievement, and they’ve got a really good side. South Africa play to their strengths and boast an exceptional pack of forwards and a Bomb Squad which nobody else in world rugby has got. The talent is there and I think the team will evolve and perhaps play a more complete game. The aim is to win and they have been doing that on a reasonably consistent basis... One New Zealand rugby writer described the Boks as a “very good team but not a great one.” At this particular time in terms of their development, he’s probably got an argument. At this stage, the Boks are not quite there (as the complete package) and there is room for improvement. Both Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have said the same thing. I think South Africa’s attack will develop and we have seen some good tries that the team have scored. There is plenty of pace out-wide and they possess a good midfield combination in Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am. You can see Am has developed as both a player and leader. He has a lot of experience now, reads the game well and is a really good footballer. He is highly-respected over here in the northern hemisphere. Meanwhile, from some of the offloading that we have seen, De Allende is so much more than a crash-ball runner. In terms of the role the Boks want him to play, some perceive him to be one-dimensional, but he’s certainly not.
Sport24 asked: Who would have been your World Player of the Year?
Alan Solomons: For me, the best player in the world this past year has been Eben Etzebeth by a country mile. He is an exceptional rugby player. He’s a massive man, is outstanding in the lineout, is a potent scrummager owing to his size and is a fantastic athlete around the field. His work-rate is unbelievable and he’s in the game all the time. He has been quite exceptional this season. (Etzebeth wasn’t nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year, but is tipped to win the SA Rugby Player of the Year award). In terms of who wins the World Rugby Player of the Year award, I think Samu Kerevi is an absolutely outstanding rugby player. The Wallabies missed him and Quade Cooper and, by all accounts, their 10-12 axis was a problem on the autumn tour. Antoine Dupont is also brilliant, so my choice for Player of the Year would be between those two backs. They are a bit above the other pair.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of Siya Kolisi’s continued rise?
Alan Solomons: South Africa is very fortunate to have a man like him, and what he has gone through is unbelievable. One of the advantages he had was that he was picked up early and was able to go to Grey High. It helped him in his development a great deal, but what he has been through is difficult for most of us to fully appreciate. And what he has done (to get from Zwide to the world stage) is absolutely remarkable. In terms of his coastal switch, I think it was understandable that Kolisi swapped Cape Town for Durban. While I’m not there so I can’t comment on the boardroom issues, I know there have been disruptions at Western Province. The Sharks, in turn, seem to be a stable outfit and there is the Roc Nation connection as well. If you look at all the circumstances, it’s perfectly understandable that Kolisi made the move. As far as growing his brand and taking on more commercial engagements is concerned, I don’t think the fame will affect him as a person. I think he’s a very level-headed young man and I don’t believe it will impact on him at all. I’m definitely going to get hold of his autobiography - Rise - because I would really like to read it and learn more about him.
Sport24 asked: How do you see the next World Cup taking shape?
Alan Solomons: When Sir Ian McGeechan says that the All Blacks are “still the team to beat”, I think what he means is that because they have been on top for so long, they have got an aura around them. It was massive when Ireland and France beat them because of that, but next season is a big one for them. They cannot afford to allow what happened this season to occur in 2022. The All Blacks have got some selection issues that they need to settle. When they’ve been at the top of their game, they’ve always had settled combinations and you could virtually name their side without thinking about it. That’s not the case at the moment… When I look at the World Cup contenders - France, England, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand - you’ve got six really strong sides there, and having the Pacific Island nations strengthened by players being able to turn out for them again after that break of three years will make a huge difference. I think the competitiveness is positive, but to say - on the basis of the recently concluded autumn tour that came at the end of a very difficult season for the three southern hemisphere teams - that there has been a shift of power to the north is far-fetched. That said, I don’t think it’s a question of the likes of Ireland and France peaking before the World Cup. The most important thing is to keep winning because that engenders confidence. France will be at home in 2023 and they have got a really good team and an outstanding coaching/management set-up. They are most certainly one of the favourites to win the World Cup.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of the United Rugby Championship?
Alan Solomons: I have always been one who has felt that it’s important for South Africa to have that Australian and New Zealand competition. They are part of the southern hemisphere and that’s just a personal view. However, I understand the commercial and travel reasons behind joining the United Rugby Championship... The first few rounds were difficult for the South African sides, but we must remember that by the time they entered, Covid had already been going for some time. The pandemic impacted on everything and it was difficult as the South African sides had to travel. I just don’t think they were ready for it. Moreover, what also makes it difficult for South Africa is the number of outstanding players that are plying their trade overseas in France, UK and Japan. The country has really been denuded of a plethora of players. Although South Africa continues to produce fantastic young players, you always need that mix between youth and experience. I think South African rugby is missing that sort of experienced player who makes a huge difference to the young lad coming through, the team and the team performance... Trevor Nyakane is the latest South African to pen a deal with a foreign-based club. However, in fairness to Trevor, he has given yeomen-like service to South African rugby. He’s 32 now and one can understand the move as it’s a wonderful experience for him to have at this point in his career. For me, the bigger headache is talented young players heading abroad. I don’t think it’s healthy for a country to be losing that number of players. It’s very difficult in terms of finding a solution because if you look at it from a purely financial perspective, both the Euro and the Pound are considerably stronger than the Rand. There is a financial incentive and players only have a limited lifespan in terms of which they can play the game. They have taken themselves out of the job market and because they are plying their trade as professionals, they need to make the most of it in order to set themselves up for life post-rugby.