RWC: Planet to see most ‘rainbowed’ Boks yet

Siya Kolisi (Gallo Images)
Siya Kolisi (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - The process is ongoing and opinion will steadfastly differ on when you can ever consider the Springbok rugby team truly “transformed”.

But one thing seems relatively beyond dispute for the 2019 World Cup: South Africa will routinely put out matchday squads in Japan that come closer than ever before at the tournament to reflecting the country’s demographic.

The revelation on Monday of Rassie Erasmus’s 31-strong squad for the Japan-hosted event, as had widely been anticipated, brought with it extraordinarily few (no?) surprises, such has been the steadiness and meticulousness of the head coach’s build-up plans this year.

What it did confirm was that the Boks will have a dozen players of colour in the squad, amounting to almost 39 percent.

That may not, at first thought, seem an especially illuminating or celebration-worthy figure … especially when you take into account the stated goal of outspoken then-Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula shortly after the last tournament in the UK in 2015, of a higher, 50 percent figure in the Bok team by 2019.

Still, it left reasonably ambiguous the definition of “team”: whether that might mean the showcase starting XV, the fuller match-day 23, or the national squad as an even wider collective.

Against that backdrop, one of the key reasons Erasmus may well stave off even a discernible ripple of dissent from more hawkish elements of the transformation-prioritising lobby is how much more aggressively than any predecessor he has managed to get players of colour to the forefront of his plans – as opposed to the controversial earlier trend of too many players in that category effectively becoming perceived as “tackle-bag holders” at major tournaments and game-time being desperately limited for some of them.

It is entirely feasible, for example, that when the Boks open their RWC campaign with the pool humdinger against defending champions New Zealand at Yokohama on September 21, the world will witness comfortably the best-balanced South African start-out XV, in racial consideration terms, in the country’s seven-tournament World Cup history.

That team may well feature eight players of colour (53.3 percent) if, by then, captain Siya Kolisi is deemed fully fit to lead the troops at the outset following his lengthy injury layoff recently, the in-form front row of Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane is retained en masse and all of, say, Cheslin Kolbe, S’bu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende begin against the All Blacks.

Even if it is between Kolbe and Nkosi specifically for the right wing spot - rather than one of the fliers swopping to the other side, which might at least be considered - then Makazole Mapimpi simply enters the radar logically for the No 11 jersey, which could still leave a Bok run-on side dominated by black players.

The Bok squad at the last World Cup, where Heyneke Meyer guided them to bronze-medal status, featured nine black players in the again 31-strong total squad (29.03 percent) but the bigger difference was that fewer of them were regular

front-liners: only Bryan Habana (now retired), JP Pietersen, De Allende and Mtawarira started the critical semi-final, narrowly lost 20-18 to the All Blacks.

For earlier RWC 2011, under Peter de Villiers’s tutelage, the Bok squad had eight players of colour in a squad of 30 (26.6 percent).

The number recedes profoundly the deeper back you delve in World Cup history: when the Boks won the title for a second time in 2007, for example, only Pietersen and Habana (as starters) featured in the match-day 22, and in the first trophy success of 1995, just Chester Williams on the left wing broke the overwhelmingly white monopoly.

In more general terms, the 2019 Bok squad seems about as close to the most appropriate for a concerted Webb Ellis Cup challenge in Japan as even the harshest of Erasmus observers could suggest.

Really scandalous omissions? There simply aren’t any.

If speed merchant Kwagga Smith pipping the more grunt-conscious Rynhardt Elstadt to a loose forward spot is about as emotional (not!) as it gets, then this truly has been one of the least contentious Bok RWC squad announcements imaginable.

Virtually all bases are gratifyingly covered, both in terms of first choices and back-ups, and perhaps only at flyhalf can you argue that the 2015 Bok predecessors had a deeper pool of personnel.

That intelligent, versatile customer Pat Lambie was still playing rugby then, meaning he joined a three-strong group of No 10s also encompassing Handre Pollard (four years wiser, and travelling again in 2019) and Morne Steyn.

This time, there are only two out-and-out pivots in Pollard and Elton Jantjies, but both are playing reassuringly well and Frans Steyn, lone survivor of the class of 2007, can be roped into the channel should it be necessary before any additional figure can be flown in from back home.

The vast majority of South African enthusiasts must be ready to say with some conviction “let’s bring it on” …

Springboks' 31-man Rugby World Cup squad:

Forwards (17)

Schalk Brits (Bulls), Lood de Jager (Bulls), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers), Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), Steven Kitshoff (Stormers), Vincent Koch (Saracens, England), Siya Kolisi (captain, Stormers), Francois Louw (Bath, England), Frans Malherbe (Stormers), Malcolm Marx (Lions), Bongi Mbonambi (Stormers), Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Franco Mostert (Gloucester, England), Trevor Nyakane (Bulls), Kwagga Smith (Lions), RG Snyman (Bulls), Duane Vermeulen (Bulls)

Backs (14)

Lukhanyo Am (Sharks), Damian de Allende (Stormers), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks, England), Warrick Gelant (Bulls), Elton Jantjies (Lions), Herschel Jantjies (Stormers), Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse, France), Jesse Kriel (Bulls), Makazole Mapimpi (Sharks), S'bu Nkosi (Sharks), Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz, Japan), Handre Pollard (Bulls), Cobus Reinach (Northampton Saints, England), Frans Steyn (Montpellier, France)

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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