Jacques Nienaber. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
With just under two months to go until the first Springbok game of the year, it seems that speculation over who will be included in the team is already reaching fever pitch. And of course, everyone has an opinion about who should be selected, and who should be dropped. This is nothing new, although perhaps it feels a little more frenzied this year because we’re finally getting to actually see our beloved Springboks live after nearly three years. People will always have their favorites, and there is no one more passionate or more stubborn than a South African rugby fan. But I am still always amused by how worked up people get before a single squad has been announced, or game has been played.
If you believed some of the outrage on social media, Jacques Nienaber’s job as Springbok coach should already be in jeopardy, and we can basically kiss the 2023 World Cup goodbye because of his selection policies. People are UPSET because the players they would choose are definitely not going to be in the team. Again, all this before any announcements have been made. It’s quite a thing. Of course, a lot of the speculation is based on last year’s squads, and so people feel justified in their assumptions that very few new players will be given the opportunity to play this year. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe last year was a complete anomaly.
Ordinarily, the year after winning a World Cup would be a time for a team to celebrate their victory, and also perhaps play around a bit with selection, having very little to prove. It would represent the start of a new World Cup cycle, and the opportunity to start to blood younger players, bringing them into the mix with the more experienced team members who won the showpiece the previous year. Instead, in 2020, the Springboks didn’t get to play a single game, thanks to COVID. Jacques Nienaber spent essentially his first 18 months as coach without the team playing at all. The Springboks remained number 1 in the world, despite not having played, and the pressure was on to prove that they deserved it.
By the time the Springboks could take to the field again, it was July 2021. They were weeks away from a British & Irish Lions tour that looked like it would be cancelled many times over, with only one warm up game against Georgia to prepare for it. To add to that pressure, the team was in a constant state of upheaval, with players testing positive for COVID, and training continuously disrupted, not to mention the usual injuries that come with every season. The disruptions continued throughout the year, along with the added pressure on players and coaching staff of having to be in a bio-bubble for much of the time. Jacques Nienaber was under immense pressure to win every game, while also constantly being told that the Springboks should be playing more exciting rugby. And he should be offering more youngsters an opportunity. The team was being absolutely ripped apart in the media for their losses to Australia and their (apparently) boring style of play. Something obviously had to give, and I think it’s only fair to say that in a year like 2021, as much as he may have wanted to, experimenting with combinations and testing squad depth was just not always going to be possible or reasonable.
All that being said, I think we also forget that while our favorite young guns may not have had as much game time as we would have liked to see, there were still at least ten previously uncapped players in the various squads throughout the year. A player like Ox Nché, who only had one cap prior to 2021, ultimately came to feature heavily for the team. And even though some of the other players got little to no game time, I’m fairly certain that if you asked them, they'd say that they felt that the learning opportunities afforded by being in camp were worth the travel.
So, while many have accused Jacques Nienaber of being too risk averse, I suspect we may see a more balanced approach this year, with a number of younger players getting an opportunity to shine. I also suspect that this probably won’t be enough to please some of the naysayers, who seem to think that the coaching team should simply jettison players who still have a wealth of experience and talent to offer, simply because they’re not shiny and new anymore. Of course, young players deserve their opportunities (and I’m purposefully not naming anyone specific here), but this cannot always come at the expense of seasoned players who still have much to offer. Successful teams retain a core of experience, providing consistency and stability, while also bringing in exciting new talent when it’s appropriate. The Springboks will find that balance again, as playing conditions begin to return to normal. And hopefully everyone will opt to back the boys, regardless of whether their personal favorites are on the field or not.