Since a semi-final appearance in 2015 it’s been a strange four years for the Springboks, from losing to Italy in 2016 to beating the All Blacks in Wellington last October.
The trend in recent times though has gone steadily upwards, certainly since Rassie Erasmus took over early in 2018, and given their 16-16 draw in New Zealand last week hopes are only rising higher.
Ahead of their final Rugby Championship match at the weekend, we take a look at how the Springbok squad is shaping up.
With South African talent well and truly spread out across the globe at present it’s testament to former Munster DOR Erasmus’ talent that he’s built exceptional squad depth, as well as a largely settled side.
At the World Cup we might expect to see largely the same XV who enjoyed a successful 2018, but the squad is such that there are ever-deepening classy options all battling it out and pressurising shirts.
This summer Erasmus has predominately been working with a 39-man squad so has eight to cut, six weeks out from the global showpiece.
Like all nations the Springboks haven’t been able to consider a few options due to injury, back-rower Warren Whiteley and centre Jan Serfontein perhaps the biggest losses, while they’re keenly trying to get skipper Siya Kolisi and wing Aphiwe Dyantyi back to fitness in time.
South Africa’s ace card looks to be their monstrous pack, why break from history, with a possible eight reading Kitshoff, Marx, Malherbe, Snyman, Etzebeth, Kolisi, du Toit and Vermeulen.
Another interesting feature of the squad is the return of Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee, who ended an international absence of four years with his substitute appearance against Australia, following a superb Guinness PRO14 season with four tries in 16 appearances.
For areas of contention though there is a lack of a settled midfield partnership – neither Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Lukhanyo Am, Frans Steyn or Andre Esterhuizen will be certain of a start, and one from five here looks likely to miss out altogether.
Given their world-class talent dotted all around the squad, you could make a case for many to be the key man in Japan.
If Malcolm Marx cues his throwing well he has the loose game to surpass any other, captain Kolisi is the driving force in the team while Duane Vermeulen is irreplaceable on his day, which it often is.
Faf de Klerk, World Rugby Player of the Year nominee in 2018, is an incredible No.9 but we’ve opted for fly-half Handre Pollard as the key man, with de Klerk backed up well in the squad.
Should the Sale Sharks man go down, the also-excellent Cobus Reinach could step in, as could 2019 bolter Herschel Jantjies – if Pollard is unavailable then Elton Jantjies is the likely replacement.
The Lions fly-half is a good player but is he good, and consistent, enough to win a World Cup? There are many doubters around the world.
Hence the Springboks will count on the Bulls’ Pollard to steer their ship to the title. And the 25-year-old is pure class, 40 caps to his name and with the kicking, passing and running game right up there with the best.
Predicting Erasmus’ first-choice pack, there look to be two club partnerships that could be key in the final make-up.
Looking over the last 12 months in the Springbok front row, hooker Marx is most likely to be linking arms with Stormers props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe.
That club partnership could work wonders against opposition scrums in Japan, with Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Thomas du Toit and Vincent Koch waiting in the wings.
Further back in the pack and more often than not in recent times more Stormers have operated on the flanks – Kolisi at No.6 and Pieter-Steph du Toit at openside.
Not that Francois Louw and Kwagga Smith aren’t excellent alternatives, but back rows are all about balance and Kolisi, du Toit and Vermeulen have formed a formidable one since Erasmus came in.
The Rainbow Nation very much has a wildcard on the table at present – with scrum-half Herschel Jantjies going from solid Super Rugby starter to Rugby Championship hero in the space of a month.
The 23-year-old was selected in the training squad ahead of Embrose Papier back in June on the basis of his strong form for the Stormers, and has stolen plenty of headlines since.
On debut, Herschel Jantjies, who played for the Scarlets on a one-match loan in 2017, grabbed two tries and man of the match against Australia while he also struck with the late, draw-securing try in Wellington.
He’s now in the driving seat to make the squad for the trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, while many also have veteran utility back Frans Steyn in that same category.
A much-storied player, Steyn made his South Africa debut 13 years ago, won the World Cup in 2007 but spent five years in the international wilderness between 2012 and 2017.
The Montpellier man has also played every position in the backline for his country, except scrum-half, and should get the edge in the centre battle with his ability to cover 10 and full-back.
He’s come on at centre in the last two matches but there is talk in South Africa that de Allende’s start at No.12 could be under threat – Steyn’s huge boot and ability to create an interchangeable 10/12 combination making him a wildcard entry for the first XV.
South Africa has long been a factory line for producing both hulking and talented back-rowers and the 2019 crop is no different, Erasmus spoiled for choice.
This summer the head coach has been working with seven and may need to cut that to the usual World Cup number of five – Kolisi, Louw, du Toit, Smith, Vermeulen, Marcell Coetzee and Rynardt Elstadt the men in question.
Both Elstadt and Ulster’s Coetzee have had the opportunity this summer as a reward for their excellent form in Europe, and will fight it out to the last to make the cut.
But Erasmus also has options to free up squad space. He could take just three specialist locks and use the versatile du Toit to cover, while if Steyn travels that enables just two specialist fly-halves in Pollard and Elton Jantjies.
Whatever the final make-up the level of depth in South Africa is astounding – their World Cup opener against the All Blacks on September 21 is one not to be missed.