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Depth to decide clash of Test titans

OPINION: South Africa’s strength in depth across most positions could be the difference when they meet Ireland in an attritional two-match battle this July.

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Ireland coach Andy Farrell announced a touring party of 35 last week, while Rassie Erasmus named a 39-man Test squad – as well as an additional 14 players on standby – on Tuesday.

Before analysing who are in those respective squads, it’s worth considering who’s been ruled out, either due to injury or suspension.

IRELAND’S IRREPLACEABLES

The length of South Africa’s injury list is concerning, but in the context of the broader player base and experienced options at Erasmus’s disposal, there is certainly no cause for alarm.

Flank-cum-hooker Deon Fourie, first-choice fullback Damian Willemse, locks Jean Kleyn and Jason Jenkins, as well as the exciting young No.13 Henco van Wyk have all been ruled out for lengthy periods.

Prop Steven Kitshoff, scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, lock Lood de Jager, utility back Canan Moodie and frontline No.8 Jasper Wiese may only be back for the Rugby Championship.

While Faf de Klerk, Makazole Mapimpi and Edwill van der Merwe are still with the squad, they are nursing injuries sustained in the 41-13 win against Wales last Saturday.

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Any other nation would be in crisis if 13 players – 10 of them World Cup winners – were unavailable for a big series or tournament, and the two-match rubber against Ireland promises to be one of the Boks’ most challenging assignments in recent years.

But a closer look at the squad picked by Erasmus reveals that there is quality in reserve.

While the Boks are thin in a few positions (more on this in a minute), they appear better placed than Ireland to survive the challenge of playing two gruelling Tests played back-to-back.

There are fewer Irish players on the injury list, with scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park, wing Mack Hansen, loose forward Jack Conan and lock Iain Henderson missing the tour to South Africa.

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But all four players are matchday squad regulars, and it’s debatable whether Ireland can continue to play their high-tempo game without Gibson Park, the key to their attack.

It’s a strong and experienced squad overall, and one would expect most of the players who beat the Boks during the pool phase of the 2023 World Cup and won the 2024 Six Nations to feature in the matchday 23 next week at Loftus.

A few more injuries, however, especially up front, and the tourists could be further compromised.

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FORWARD CONUNDRUMS

Erasmus faces the right sort of headache in most positions.

One of Frans Malherbe, Trevor Nyakane and Vincent Koch will miss out on selection for the Tests, and Thomas du Toit, one of the leading players in the recent English Premiership tournament, may also end up watching from the stands.

Even without Kitshoff, the Boks have a surfeit of experienced options in the front row.

Ireland might argue that they are a match for the Boks in the hooker position, where they have Ronan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan.

Malcolm Marx recently made his return to Test rugby, and Bongi Mbonambi will also be available for the coming Tests.

Johan Grobbelaar and Jan-Hendrik Wessels have been included in the Test squad, but it remains to be seen if Erasmus will back one of these uncapped players if Marx or Mbonambi breaks down.

Joseph Dweba is part of the wider group to provide cover, and while he isn’t known for his line-out prowess, he is a fierce scrummager and breakdown exponent.

With Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman in tow, the Boks appear well-stocked in the second row.

A closer look at the wider group, and the injury list, suggests they are light on No.5 options with a track record of managing and calling the line-out.

With De Jager recovering from injury, Mostert is arguably the player the Boks can least afford to lose.

No.8 Evan Roos made a strong claim for a starting position via a solid showing against Wales, but the Boks are already without Wiese for the duration of the series, and there are no experienced specialists in reserve.

As was the case at Twickenham last week, Kwagga Smith may continue to pack down at No.8 whenever Roos leaves the field, and in the event of injuries. That may alter the balance of the Bok back row, though.

Cameron Hanekom, one of eight players on the injury list, wasn’t included in the Test squad or the standby group – which is being prepared for the one-off against Portugal on 20 July.

It was interesting to see Hanekom described by SA Rugby as a ‘flank’ in the official squad release, even though he plays No.8 for the Bulls.

Perhaps this is an indication of where he might feature for South Africa when he becomes available.

The same applies to Elrigh Louw, who is in the standby group, and listed as a No.8 even though he plays mostly at blindside flank for the Bulls.

Meanwhile, Phepsi Buthelezi and Ben-Jason Dixon have been included in the Test match group.

Buthelezi has featured as a No.7 and No.8 for the Sharks in recent seasons, but was used as an openside in the South Africa A matches on the 2022 tour to Europe.

Dixon has already been described by Erasmus as a utility player in the mould of Pieter-Steph du Toit, who plays primarily at blindside but has the ability to cover lock.

Like Grobbelaar and Wessels, both of these players seem more likely to play against Portugal than against Ireland.

But the fact that all four are in the Test squad is a statement. The Bok coaches feel they are ready for top-flight action.

HALFBACK HEADACHES

Morné van den Berg is the fourth uncapped player in the Test squad.

Before addressing that selection, let’s look at the concern around De Klerk’s injury – or rather the lack thereof.

Ireland have good cause to worry in the wake of Gibson-Park’s injury, given the importance of his role in their game plan. Craig Casey lacks experience, while Conor Murray is more suited to tactical kicking strategy (which is why he was preferred by the British and Irish Lions in 2021).

De Klerk is a double World Cup winner and is as important to the Boks’ defensive and kicking strategy as he is to the attack.

But Cobus Reinach has proved himself a fine replacement for this team over the past six years.

Grant Williams continues to impress when given the opportunity at the highest level, but it may be some time yet before he is trusted to start and control big games from that No.9 position.

Hopefully, De Klerk bounces back from his injury to rejoin Reinach in that matchday 23 combination.

If he doesn’t, and the Boks lose Reinach ahead of the second Test, then they may be forced to go with Williams and the untried Van den Berg.

They are two exciting selections for sure, but the latter players lack the experience and the tactical experience of the veterans.

In the long term, the Boks will welcome back Jaden Hendrikse, who was the first-choice No 9 in 2022 before De Klerk fought his way back to the top of the pecking order.

The flyhalf selection was the big talking point ahead of the Test season.

With Handré Pollard and potentially Manie Libbok unavailable due to club commitments, Erasmus was going to have to back an uncapped player like Jordan Hendrikse, Siya Masuku or Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu for the game against Wales.

In the end, the Boks backed Hendrikse to start at No.10, and Feinberg-Mngomezulu to play from the bench.

Since then, Erasmus has moved Hendrikse to the standby group, which suggests the 22-year-old is being prepared to face Portugal. Masuku may also get an opportunity in Bloemfontein.

Feinberg-Mngomezulu is with the senior side, and third in line behind Pollard and Libbok, although his ability to cover flyhalf, centre and fullback may earn him a spot on the bench if the more senior utility players are unavailable – and the Boks are already missing two of their Swiss army knives in Willemse and Moodie.

Ireland hasn’t been the same since Johnny Sexton retired.

Jack Crowley and Ciaran Frawley may struggle to marshal the team’s attack with the same efficiency in the coming series, especially with Gibson-Park ruled out.

At this stage of his Test career, the 21-year-old Sam Prendergast may battle to make an impact against a team like the Boks, especially if his side is struggling for a steady supply of front-foot ball.

The Boks have two excellent flyhalf options, although they both have their weaknesses. Pollard is the master tactician and organiser, and his attacking limitations are mitigated when the likes of Willie le Roux are starting at fullback. As seen at the World Cup last year, he can slot match-winning goals.

Libbok has struggled with his goal-kicking consistency, but his allround strengths have amplified the Boks in other areas such as attack. Few will have forgotten how Libbok spearheaded one of the great South African attacking performances against France in the 2023 World Cup quarterfinal.

If Pollard is unavailable, the Boks will find themselves scrambling for a reliable goal-kicker, and might even consider fast-tracking Feinberg-Mngomezulu after his successful long-range penalty at Twickenham last week.

But in terms of general game management, Libbok is a fine alternative to have.

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RETURN OF THE KING

Lukhanyo Am’s return to the squad is significant, even though Jesse Kriel is in the best form of his career.

Before the squad was announced, the Boks were looking thin at No.13, especially after Moodie – one of the heroes of the record win against the All Blacks at Twickenham last year – sustained a serious finger injury.

Now that Am is back, Erasmus may consider accommodating both players in the matchday 23.

At his best, Am is one of the best players in the world, let alone one of the top outside centres.

Should he walk back into the starting lineup at this stage, when Kriel is enjoying such a hot run of form alongside Damian de Allende?

Probably not. It’s also worth noting that Kriel has worn the No.13 shirt in the last two games against Ireland, and has led the defensive charge with outstanding results.

Perhaps Willemse’s injury should be seen as an opportunity.

Le Roux will start in place of Willemse – the incumbent No.15 after last year’s World Cup – and leave the bench role vacant. Am could make his return to the Test arena in the No.23 jersey, and cover centre and wing from the bench.

Ireland aren’t short on quality in the midfield, and Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw could cause the Boks problems if they get on the front foot, as could wing James Lowe.

The tourists will miss Hansen, though, as well as fullback Hugo Keenan, who has opted to travel with the national sevens team to the Olympic Games in Paris.

Aphelele Fassi, Mapimpi and Edwill van der Merwe are all at different stages of their respective careers, but certainly made their opportunities count in the recent Test against Wales, and subsequently earned a place in the Test squad.

These are the players that could, if others remain fit, miss out completely on selection for the Ireland series.

Le Roux should wear the No 15 jersey, while Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe – who have both made a full recovery from their respective injuries – should resume their places on the wings.

THE CAPTAINCY QUESTION

Erasmus has confirmed that he will announce the skipper for the season ahead of the first Test.

Again, Erasmus is not short on options.

Siya Kolisi is back with the squad, Du Toit led the team last week, while Etzebeth and Mbonambi have captained the side before.

Erasmus says that captaincy is not a big deal, and if you’ve followed the Boks closely over the past few seasons, you will have noted how several players have shared the role.

Kolisi has led the team onto the park and dealt with the referee.

Whenever he has left the field, Etzebeth and Mbonambi have taken control.

A big question, in terms of the back row dynamic, is whether Kolisi should start ahead of Kwagga Smith and Marco van Staden at No.6 if he’s not the captain.

While Kolisi was one of the Boks’ most consistently outstanding players in the previous World Cup-cycle, he has struggled with form and injury since joining Racing 92.

One would expect those three players – Kolisi, Smith and Van Staden – to play some role in the matchday 23 if Erasmus favours a six-two split between forwards and backs on the bench.

It would come as a surprise if Kolisi was benched, but in two taxing battles with Ireland, he would still have an important role to play.

Lastly, Thomas du Toit is yet another leadership option, having led the SA A side on the 2022 tour.

Most of the players that feature against Ireland are unlikely to face Portugal, and it will be interesting to see if Du Toit is handed the captaincy for this match, or whether Erasmus favours a younger player with an eye to the future.

@rugby365com

In this episode of Walk the Talk, Jim Hamilton chats with double World Cup winner Damian de Allende about all things Springbok rugby, including RWC2023 and the upcoming Ireland series. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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