Bulls midfielder Jan Serfontein has been a revelation for the Springboks, with Lions lock Franco Mostert the pick of the forwards.
Serfontein’s performance in the Test series win against the French was a reminder of his skill set and his qualities as a specialist No 12.
This was more the Serfontein who was so influential in the Junior Springboks’ World Championship title success five years ago. This was the player who thrilled with his rugby intelligence as much as his athletic ability.
Serfontein, as a Junior Springbok, was a class apart. For the first time in his Test career he commanded a similar presence.
Serfontein sought space to beat the defensive structures of the French. He was strong in contact but there was investment in his skills and not a compromise and sacrifice because of a belief that every inside centre’s solitary role is to put his head down and run hard at the opposition.
There was variation to how Serfontein played and there was subtlety. He did a job that reminded me of Conrad Smith’s brilliant career with the All Blacks. His work ethic, attitude and understanding of the defence was masterful. There was intensity in his kick chase, his tackling and especially the speed at which he recovered from one action to be involved in a succession of actions.
My preferred option at No 12 was Frans Steyn, but Springbok coach Allister Coetzee and his technical specialist Brendan Venter and backline coach Franco Smith got it spot on in starting with Serfontein and Jesse Kriel for the opening Test.
Steyn was used sparingly in the last twenty minutes of both Test matches and understandably so when we see how the French players struggled with the fatigue of a season that started in August last year.
All credit to the selection and the strategy. It worked a treat.
Serfontein’s touches also seemed to bring out the best in Kriel at outside centre. Kriel’s attacking game looked very sharp in the first Test and he deservedly returns for the third Test after missing the win in Durban because of concussion.
Kriel’s defensive game is the one that will be tested more in the Rugby Championships but he is a player whose impact is aligned to his confidence. He’ll take more from the first Test win in Pretoria than he would have from the last two seasons with the Bulls.
Mostert’s selection was also a brave one, but it was absolute reward for consistent performances for the Lions in Super Rugby. There would have been few complaints had Coetzee started with the Stormers lock duo of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit. The latter was South Africa’s 2016 Player of the Year and has played well for the Stormers in 2017.
But Mostert’s work rate and energy for the Lions simply couldn’t be ignored and he has seamlessly transferred those qualities to Test rugby.
Springbok lock icon Bakkies Botha used social media to applaud Mostert’s display in helping the Springboks secure the Test series with one match to play.
Botha lauded Mostert as the best lock currently in South Africa and the first he would pick for the Springboks. That’s huge praise coming from one of the best the game has known in the last decade.
Mostert was at the heart of the Boks’ defensive intensity and it’s the intensity and work ethic of the Boks in 2017 that has been a world removed from the pedestrian pace at which they did everything in 2016.
The impact of Serfontein and Mostert will ensure the likes of Steyn, Du Toit and Lood de Jager respond to the challenge and when that happens the depth and quality of the squad starts matching the squad’s ambition of being a top two rugby powerhouse again.
Malcolm Marx and Siya Kolisi also made a statement against France and the Lions halfback combination of Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies were as imposing as they have been in Super Rugby.
There was inspirational leadership from Warren Whiteley and there were good impact cameos from Steven Kitshoff and Jean-Luc du Preez, which all adds to the depth of the squad.
There is a tendency in South African rugby, among the media and supporters, to anoint a player on the basis of 40 brilliant minutes and then forget about him because of 40 bad minutes.
There is also this trend to always want to include one player and exclude another because of the emotion around the most recent performances.
For example it should not be a case of Duane Vermeulen or Du Preez, bur rather both. The Springboks will again find consistency when the squad depth extends beyond 15 and 23 Test players.
The Springboks that beat France have added much needed depth to the potential strength of a squad that again can compete with the world’s best.
There was so much to like about how the Boks won against France, but as Coetzee repeatedly stated beating France is a beginning and that the follow through has to be in the Rugby Championship.
A year ago the Boks beat Ireland in a home series. Coetzee knows how dramatically a season can turn. The Rugby Championship will ask tougher questions but the manner of the performance against France allows for optimism that the questions will this year be answered.
There is hope again among Springbok supporters, which is an even bigger win than beating France in South Africa.