The 2021 edition of the Rugby Championship ends on Saturday as the Wallabies play Los Pumas and the Springboks face The All Blacks. The competition is already over though, as New Zealand secured the trophy when they beat the Springboks in the historic 100th clash between the two sides. A strong start from the Boks with back to back wins against the Argentine's came unraveled with two losses to Australia and one to the Kiwis.
The last time the Springboks lost 4 games in a row was in 2016, and what followed was a horrendous time for South African rugby which culminated in the current contingent of back room staff getting the nod to take the reins. Now this current crop of Springboks is markedly different from the 2016 side at the time. They know how to win and they had up until the Australasian leg of the Championship, done well to stick to their winning formula, but just where did it go wrong?
Whilst many are blaming the kicking tactics of De Klerk and Pollard, which does hold merit, and others are calling for changes at the back, I believe the problem is far more simple. The Springboks have stagnated, gotten comfortable and taken their foot off the pedal. I guess a series win over the British & Irish Lions on the back of a World Cup can make one complacent.
Barring injury or retirement, the Springboks are still consistently putting out a match day 23 that favors those who played in the 2019 Final. Whilst this may seem like a good idea on paper, it is flawed at its core and I believe the biggest reason behind their recent dip in form. Comfort breeds complacency, and well in the sense of rugby, that leads to three losses on the trot.
I am a strong believer in the fact that squad depth and in squad competition is one of the most crucial elements to success on field. When players get comfortable and secure in their selection, it can be a breeding ground for complacency. If you look at the two years in which Rassie resurrected the Boks prior to the World Cup, squad rotation and playing opportunities were constantly up for grabs. It was rare for the same combinations to play more than 2 consecutive tests and the side began to flourish.
Squad rotation dished up the shining star that is Herschel Jantjies, it provided Sbu Nkosi with the confidence to take his shot in his first start and shoot he did. Lukhanyo Am, Jessie Kriel, Damian De Allende, Frans Steyn, Andre Esterhuizen were all taking turns at taking it up the middle. Pollard and Jantjies were getting proper game time, whilst youngsters like Bosch and Willemse were getting exposure too. Kitshoff and beast were well rotated and Bongi and Malcolm got to share the starting birth.
Come 2021 though and all this has gone out the window. Malcolm Marx is consigned to a bench roll, Handre Pollard is entrenched at 10, with Elton and Morne mere tackle bag holders. Faf hangs onto the 9 jersey whilst Jantjie's waits patiently for a handful of minutes and Reinach gets to enjoy a holiday down under. New talent like Aphelele Fassi, Simelane, Specman, Williams, Orie et al are all left with being part of a touring squad as their story to write home about.
I truly believe that the lack in squad rotation has lead to discontent within the squad on the one hand and complacency on the other. Two ingredients that certainly don't spell a winning formula at all. The Springboks tool a squad of more than 40 players to Australia and have barely given anyone game time out of the tried and tested 23. So with that in mind, I put together a starting side, comprised firstly of players that have played less than 40 minutes in the Australasian leg and filling in the gaps with those that have.
Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg (left tour early)
Dan du Preez
Thomas du Toit (left tour early)
Lood de Jager
Marco van Staden
Willie Le Roux
Rotating these players in should have been high up on the list of priorities, 2023 is not that far away with only about 12 tests left to go. The Springboks certainly missed an opportunity to grow their legacy and build a stronger more well rounded squad, something that was the envy of everyone in Japan 2019 but has seemingly fallen by the way side now.