TALKING POINT: Jake is right but it’s complicated

rugby23 April 2024 07:45| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Springboks © Getty Images

Okay, so here’s a Springbok team for next season, numbered from 15 to 1: Damian Willemse (or Willie le Roux), Kurt-Lee Arendse, Lukhanyo Am, Andre Esterhuizen, Canan Moodie, Manie Libbok, Jaden Hendrikse, Cameron Hanekom, Evan Roos, Marco van Staden, Ruben van Heerden (or Ruan Nortje), Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi (captain), Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Joseph Dweba/Johan Grobbelaar, Ox Nche, Vincent Koch/Trevor Nyakane, Nortje/Van Heerden, Jason Jenkins, Marcell Coetzee, Grant Williams, Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu.

If you look at that team closely you will figure out what it is - it is what a Springbok team might look like next season if Vodacom Bulls director of rugby Jake White got his way and only players based inside South Africa were considered for the national team.

It is a strong side, although with clearly identifiable areas where the side that won the last World Cup and will play against Ireland is stronger. One is blindside flank, where I’ve shifted Evan Roos from his best position of No 8 purely because I can’t think of a home based No 7. Pieter-Steph du Toit is in a league of his own not just in South Africa, but in the world. And the other is No 5 lock, where Ruben van Heerden and Ruan Nortje are the best locally and are coming as international players but not quite yet at the level Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert have been.

Jason Jenkins, who will be a Sharks next year, would be my back up blindside, he played there the other day for Leinster, covering both lock and No 7 on a bench that would be a six/two split. There are additional Bok players who will be back in the country next year who can also feature on the bench or in the team, like Trevor Nyakane, who is also going to be playing for the Sharks in 2024/25.

The Boks did win the World Cup without Malcolm Marx, which kind of undermines my point that while it is a good team, it lacks some of the really special players that swung the World Cup South Africa’s way - Marx, Handre Pollard, Du Toit, Faf de Klerk, even RG Snyman in his bench role that was valuable both in France and Japan four years earlier, and Cheslin Kolbe.


Mention of Kolbe though cues one of the positives about the South African rugby policy of selecting overseas based players. Having those players playing overseas offers opportunities to home grown players, such as Kurt-Lee Arendse, who has become like for like with Kolbe. And with Canan Moodie so young and likely to grow further in the next four years, and maybe by the next World Cup be ready to take over from Am/Jesse Kriel at outside centre, plus someone like the Stormers’ Suleiman Hartzenberg definitely ready to become a real star over the same time period, it is probably time anyway to move on from the outside backs that shone four years ago.

Would Ruan Nortje have emerged had De Jager and Snyman remained at the Bulls? I wouldn’t put them in my Springbok team, but Ben-Jason Dixon and Hacjivah Dayimani have taken their chances at franchise level and added to this country’s all round depth because Du Toit left the Stormers.

White often likes to make the point about the players that have left the Bulls - Snyman, De Jager, Pollard, Kriel - and what a difference they would make if they were still playing for the Pretoria franchise. And he makes a similar point about the Stormers - Damian de Allende, Du Toit, this season Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi, Kolbe…

You could also add into the group of players the Stormers have lost the two that are currently playing for the Sharks - Eben Etzebeth and Mbonambi. That’s a lot of players to lose, both for the Stormers and the Bulls. And yet they are still two really good rugby teams, and faced each other in the first ever Vodacom United Rugby Championship final two seasons ago.


That is an indication of just how fertile South Africa is as a breeding ground for decent rugby players. It gives substance to those who’d argue, with some justification, that having South Africa’s top players spread around the world is a positive in the sense that it creates opportunities for young players to develop early. Which widens the selection net for the Boks.

But your outlook on this tricky issue, and this is where I do agree with White, depends on what you are looking for. The Stormers and Bulls both hurt their current URC challenges this past weekend by slipping to unexpected defeats, but they are definitely both capable of winning that competition when at full muster.


The Stormers have already won it once, and were in the final in the second year, and the Bulls were the beaten finalists in the first season of URC. What looks like remaining a bridge too far though for now is the big deal that is the Investec Champions Cup.

Toulouse and La Rochelle are close to international strength, and Stormers coach John Dobson wasn’t wrong when he said after his team lost narrowly to La Rochelle that the French club side would probably make the playoffs of the World Cup.

We know Leinster would because they are almost a shadow Ireland team. Until the Boks beat them to rugby’s Holy Grail, the Webb Ellis trophy, Ireland were the No 1 side in the world, and are the reigning Six Nations champions. When the Bulls went to Leinster recently, the chasm between the two was underlined by the margin of the home team’s victory.

White would love to win the Champions Cup and add that to his impressive CV, but he knows that without the marquee players that the foreign clubs/provinces can afford, his team isn’t ready for that. Ditto the Stormers. They did well against La Rochelle at home, but their coach John Dobson admitted afterwards that the Stormers are two or three seasons away from being able to compete for Europe’s grand prize.


In saying that, Dobson advertises the slightly different tack that the Stormers are on in comparison to the Bulls and Sharks. The Stormers have an equity partner now, but have made it clear they are not going to follow the route of bringing in Galactico stars from outside. Instead Dobson is backing his young players who are just starting out to develop into star players over the next few seasons.

Securing the signature of Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu until at least 2027 was a massive coup for the Stormers. I understand that Hartzenberg has signed for a similar period. Both those are names that won’t be universally known outside this country but should be by 2027. There are others, like Andre-Hugo Venter, the scrumhalf who has yet to play for the Stormers, Imad Khan. He’s just 20, but a precocious talent, as is young lock Conor Evans, who is just 22 but already has lots of air miles in him accumulated from travelling around the world as a Stormers squad member.

That’s not saying the Bulls don’t have the same potential. White mentioned before the Munster game last week how many players in his team were 21 years old or younger. But perhaps the defeat to Munster also proved his point - he doesn’t have the experience right now to win the Champions Cup. It would be different if he had Pollard, Snyman et al playing for him, and those players would help the development of the youngsters.


Talking of development, and this is where SA Rugby maybe do need to urgently adjust their policy on overseas based players, I hear at least one of White’s youngsters is being targeted by an overseas club. And that is where the Springbok eligibility issue could really make a difference.

In the past few years the World Cup successes, and the off-shoots of that such as the Supersport Docuseries Chasing the Sun 1 and 2 that has helped make Bok players household names, must surely have added to the desire of every young player growing up in this country to become a Bok.

Knowing that they can’t do that if they base themselves overseas will surely make them think twice about signing for a French club. Keeping those players will make it possible for the likes of White to do the succession planning that is necessary to turn their teams into proper Champions Cup contenders a few years from now.

Telling Marx, Pollard, Snyman and others that might still be playing for the Boks over the next few years that they have to come home if they want to still wear the Bok jersey won’t work. And neither will South Africans want to see those players lost to the Boks.

What does make sense is having a few regulations pertaining to eligibility that will protect the South African franchises and help them put bums on seats, which is part of White’s issue, and I understand that of the backers/equity partners of his franchise and the Stormers and Sharks. Success, and star players, fills stadiums, and helps business.

You wouldn’t get just 7 000 turning up at Loftus for a Champions Cup round of 16 game, as happened recently, if the Galactico stars are playing. In a few years, players such as 19-year-old Bulls lock JF van Heerden and 21-year-old blindside flank Reinhardt Ludwig may be Galactico stars. The equally young Cameron Hanekom is also heading in that direction. But their development won’t help the Bulls if they are not in the country.

Selecting Pollard for the Boks when he’d played several seasons for the Bulls and had more than 30 international caps is not an issue. To me, choosing someone like Jasper Wiese for his debut when he hadn’t yet played for the Boks was much more of an issue. That’s an easy adjustment to make and one that should be made if the governing body is going to give the franchises a proper chance to develop and flourish to the point where they can win the Champions Cup, which in turn would provide further stimulus for Bok success.


Having the Bok squad dominated by home based players will also help the Boks achieve what they haven’t generally managed to do in the professional era, which is success in the years between World Cups. One of the reasons the Boks thrive at World Cups is because in World Cup years the players are together for months before the event.

In the in-between years that is not the case, and there is disruption that contributes to the rather peculiar fact that while the Boks have won four RWCs since 1995, they only won three Tri-Nations trophies and to this point have only won the Rugby Championship once. That needs to change and having the greater continuity that is spawned by having players near at hand would help that.