Guest writer Graeme Peacock runs through the men vying for the Springboks captains armband during England's Summer tour to South Africa this June.
England’s disappointing Six Nations campaign means the pressure has been lifted a notch for a side that previously looked unbeatable. In the first 25 games of Eddie Jones’ reign there was only one loss (to Ireland in Dublin, 13-9) before a fifth placed finish in this years Championship. Three consecutive losses to Scotland, France and Ireland mean the Test Series against South Africa takes on a whole new level of importance for the former Australian coach and his charges.
Looking to their opposition during the summer, there is a breath of fresh air surrounding Springbok rugby at the moment with the appointment of new Head Coach Rassie Erasmus taking charge. It was a challenging twenty-one months under the Allister Coetzee regime, and the decision makers at SA Rugby felt enough was enough, enter Erasmus.
Erasmus has signed an unusually long contract with SA Rugby for six years, covering the Rugby World Cups in both Japan and France. The former flanker brought in his right hand man from Munster to the national fold to turn their fortunes around, defence guru Jacques Nienaber.
This new era under Erasmus promises much after his success at Munster, however international rugby brings its own unique challenges.
The 45 year-old played 36 Tests for the Springboks between 1997 and 2001 and captained his country on one occasion. This brings to light one of the first challenges in his coaching stint – who will captain the Springboks in the Test Series against England.
While England will be touring without their ever-present captain Dylan Hartley the Springboks do not have the luxury of having a shoe-in from a captaincy point of view. There is no out-and-out favourite and it remains to be seen if a captain will be chosen only for the series against England or with one eye on Japan. Here we look at five possible captaincy options for the men in Green and Gold.
The Lions No 8 is seen as the front-runner for the captaincy position as long as he remains injury free. Herein lies the problem, it has been a miserable 12 months from a fitness point of view for Whiteley and he needs to string together a run of games for his Super Rugby franchise if he has any hopes of leading the national side. The rangy loose forward has an exceptional engine and his leadership qualities are among the best. There is however a question of whether he will start due to injury concerns and Erasmus may look to Duane Vermeulen at the base of the scrum.
The second rower thrived when given the captaincy after Whiteley’s injury last season. The Stormers lock who at 2.04 metres and 118 kilograms never shirks away from the rough stuff and has managed to control this part of his play when leading the side. The challenge however is that Erasmus may be looking for Etzebeth to lead from the front in an enforcer capacity and may feel that the captaincy blunts this. Etzebeth who already has over 50 caps for the national side is always one of the first names on the team sheet, which plays in his favour.
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The No 8 who is currently playing the last couple of games of his remaining contract at Toulon has expressed his interest and commitment in playing for the Springboks in Japan next year. A major concern is the fact that his future still seems to be uncertain as to where he will base himself after his spell in France. The general feeling among the powers that be is that the Springbok captain should be based locally in South Africa. There have been rumours that Vermeulen may be going to Japan or even back to the Stormers in South Africa, although this rumour was recently quashed. Vermeulen who is prominent leadership-wise is not a definite starter, however there may be a starting role for him on the blind-side flank with Whiteley starting at No 8.
What a 2017 it was for the Stormers loose forward, but to be honest it has been a slow start in Super Rugby this year. Kolisi who has amassed 28 caps since his man-of-the-match debut against Scotland, has been constantly referred to as a captain in waiting for the Springboks. A challenge for Kolisi is whether he will be a definite starter in the highly competitive loose forward mix. Standing at 1.88 metres and 105 kilograms he cannot dominate on the blind-side so it will have to be on the openside or from the bench where he makes his mark. The loose forward is extremely talented and great with ball in hand, the question is if he is a definite starter or not. He is a great finisher and impact player and thrives when coming on with 25 minutes to play. Kolisi currently captains the Stormers in Super Rugby.
Pollard would definitely be a bolter if chosen to lead the side and it shows where Springbok rugby is when there is no definite starter in the backline in the current set up. The Bulls pivot is extremely talented and has a massive future in the Green and Gold if he stays injury free. Therein lies the problem of late for Pollard who is in a similar boat to Whiteley from an injury point of view. The No 10 captained the South Africa Under 20 side in the 2014 Junior World Championship to a runners-up medal against England in a nail biting 21-20 loss to Maro Itoje’s England side. The 24-year-old can play both flyhalf and inside centre and is supremely talented, he manages the game beautifully and could be an option if Erasmus wants a captain from a long-term point of view.
The Springbok captaincy is certainly up for grabs and the ideal solution for Erasmus would be picking a leader to take the Springbok side through to the Rugby World Cup in 2019. For this reason alone it will most probably be Warren Whiteley that will lead the Springboks against England and beyond, if he can stay fit during this period. However a new regime may bring new thinking and the exciting prospect of a fresh face taking them through to France in 2023 could be enticing for the national coach. The Springbok captaincy is a complex job but Erasmus’ captaincy selection may be even more complex.