Mark Keohane, on IOL Sport, writes that Siya Kolisi must lead the Springboks against the British & Irish Lions in 2021 and also head up South Africa’s defence of the Rugby World Cup in France in 2023. The core of the Springbok squad that won the 2019 World Cup are also young enough to make it to France.
The World Cup is a four-year cycle, in terms of preparation, but the greatest World Cup-winning teams in recent vintage have shown the cycle, in relation to players, to be a six-year adventure.
There is a temptation, post any World Cup, to want to retire players. There seems to be a lay person belief that a younger generation of players automatically gets promoted at the expense of experienced veterans, whose number of Test appearances aren’t always consistent with their youthfulness in years.
Continuity in coaches and selection have been critical to World Cup success.
Sir Clive Woodward’s 1999 England World Cup flops, who crashed to Jannie de Beer’s inspired five-drop goals in the quarter-final in Paris, transformed into world champions in Australia four years later.
Woodward retained 60 percent of the 1999 losers and the combination of those experienced players, the permanent shift of Jonny Wilkinson from inside centre to flyhalf and the captaincy of Martin Johnson guided England to their most successful period in the professional era.
England, between 2000 and 2003, were the best team in the world.
Richie McCaw’s 2011 and 2015 All Blacks also had no comparison, in terms of dominance, results and silverware. McCaw’s All Blacks won everything, including back to back World Cups at home in 2011 and in England in 2015.
The All Blacks retained Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith after the disaster of the 2007 quarter-final exit to France. The trio, along with McCaw, led the All Blacks to their first World Cup title in 24 years. Continuity triumphed when Sir Graham, knighted for his success at the 2011 World Cup, was replaced by his assistant Hansen, who retained a core selection of players from the 2011 final to defend the title in 2015.
Lock Brad Thorn, who had retired from international rugby, was the only player from the starting pack who didn’t make it to England in 2015. Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, McCaw and Kieran Read were all there when the All Blacks created World Cup history in 2015.
There was also an investment in the celebrated midfield of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, while Sonny Bill Williams was four years wiser. Dan Carter, four years older, was also carefully managed to ensure he would start at flyhalf in the play-offs.
The Springboks, who won the World Cup in 2007, should have peaked at the 2011 World Cup. The 2009 Boks, made up largely from the 2007 world champions, beat the Lions in a three-Test series and also beat the All Blacks in three successive Tests. McCaw declared the 2009 Springboks as the best international team he ever played against in 148 Tests, of which just 15 were lost.
A change of coach, inconsistency in selections and a poor build-up to the 2011 World Cup, combined with the awful refereeing performance of Kiwi Byce Lawrence, were contributing factors to South Africa’s 2011 quarter-final elimination.
Francois Steyn, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Butch James, Fourie du Preez, John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Victor Matfield, Danie Rossouw and Schalk Burger all featured in 2007 and 2011.
The Boks, in promoting assistant coach Jacques Nienaber to head coach, and keeping World Cup-winning coach and Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus in charge of strategy and selections, have already followed the path of continuity that served England and the All Blacks and resulted in three World Cup titles between the two countries.
England coach Eddie Jones earlier in the week said that his beaten World Cup finalists, as a squad collective, did not have a successive World Cup in them. He said that the match 23 comprehensively beaten 32-12 by the Springboks in the World Cup final, would change in personnel by 60 percent come the 2023 World Cup.
Jones told the media he would introduce 20 percent new players each year in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
Erasmus and Nienaber don’t have to subscribe to the 60 percent change theory and, fitness permitting, the Bok coaching duo, should be able to call on 80 percent of the match 23 who downed England for next year’s 2021 three-Test showdown with the Lions and at least 70 percent in France two years later.
Francois Louw and Tendai Mtawarira retired from international rugby after the World Cup final. Fullback Willie le Roux has enough in his legs to play against the Lions next year and Frans Steyn’s international farewell, is destined to be against the Lions. Steyn, who won a World Cup as a 20 year-old, will be 34 when the Lions are in South Africa.
The biggest shift in the World Cup-winning Springboks is at No 8. Duane Vermuelen, colossal in Japan, has indicated he wants to make it to 2021 and play the Lions. Vermeulen will be 35 next year and won’t be in France in 2023.
Kolisi, who will only be 30 years-old in 2023, has the player skill set to take ownership of the Bok No 8 jersey in France, but for the Lions series the Bok captain must still be wearing rugby’s most famous No 6 jersey.
There is always the temptation, a year after a World Cup, to flood the national team with new faces.
Erasmus and Nienaber won’t make the mistake of dispensing with experienced veterans still young and good enough to play Test rugby.
Players will lose form and an exceptional young talent will force the selectors’ hand, but Springbok rugby has never been as settled and as strong in players 15 months out from the Lions visit, not to mention in preparation for the 2023 World Cup defence.
South Africa, as a nation, has also never been as united behind the most demographically representative Springboks our history.
Long may it last and long may Kolisi last as a player and as Bok captain.