After a week of torrid press speculation, South Africa have announced a Springbok World Cup Squad full of surprises.
Uncapped Rudy Paige was the biggest of these, picked ahead of the classy Cobus Reinach (who, incidentally, would be my first-choice nine for the Boks), while Siya Kolisi somehow got the nod over Marcell Coetzee and Heinrich Brussow at 7. As widely predicted, Japan-based Fourie du Preez made the squad despite having played barely any rugby at all in 12 months and seen very little top-level action in a few years.
In the other big calls in the forwards, Willem Alberts and Pieter-Steph du Toit made the squad despite being walking injury wards, Schalk Brits beat out Scarra Ntubeni for the third hooker slot, and Trevor Nyakane and Frans Malherbe edged Marcel van der Merwe, Vincent Koch, and Heinke van der Merwe up front.
In the backs, coach Heineke Meyer opted for three specialist tens, meaning the declining Morne Steyn got a berth, while the much derided Zane Kirchner was picked as the back-up 15. Cornal Hendricks was the surprise omission, with Meyer opting for the experience and versatility of JP Pietersen, who can also play at 13, and Lwazi Mvovo.
Making the South African squad for the World Cup is a really, really big deal. Think prime-time TV big, with personalised introductions for each player on Supersport as they emerge from backstage. The venue on this occasion was Durban, and the Sharks had more players picked than any other Super Rugby team (the Lions, so impressive in 2014-15, had zero).
Experience was a big common thread here. Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger will take part in their fourth Rugby World Cup, while Jean De Villiers, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez, as well as Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, will play in their third.
The elephant in the room was race. The shadow of Paige’s and Kolisi’s colour will lie heavily over their selections over more esteemed, experienced, and (frankly) talented counterparts.
It has been obvious for a while that Reinach was out of favour, with even Francois Hougaard preferred on last year’s spring tour.
On his day, Marcell Coetzee is probably in the top three limpet mine 7s running around, along with David Pocock and Steffon Armitage. However, he is struggling with a pair of knee injuries which must be worse than originally feared. Alberts, Vermeulen, du Toit, and Oosthuizen were all picked though either unfit to play today or having only recently returned to action. Coetzee will be spitting chips.
Meyer could easily have placated the race critics by picking Ntubeni and Hendricks while sacrificing little quality in the squad, but didn’t. So it’s hard to justify that race was, overall, a key metric. But on this ultra-sensitive issue in South Africa, perception trumps reality.
Hookers: Schalk Brits, Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss
Props: Jannie du Plessis, Frans Malherbe, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen
Locks: Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Victor Matfield (vc)
Loose forwards: Willem Alberts, Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen
Scrum-halves: Fourie du Preez, Rudy Paige, Ruan Pienaar
Fly-halves: Pat Lambie, Handrè Pollard, Morné Steyn
Centres: Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel
Outside backs: Bryan Habana, Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux, Lwazi Mvovo, JP Pietersen