Evolved South Africa side bid to retain Rugby World Cup – but one factor might prevent them

A more emphatic declaration of World Cup intent there could not have been. As the All Blacks hauled themselves off the Twickenham pitch, battered, bruised and beaten by a record margin, South Africa were already looking at what was next. A fortnight before the tournament, and four years on from a triumph that united a nation, the world champion Springboks were back in business and had their eyes fixed squarely on a World Cup prize.

The 36-7 win counted for nothing tangible in the context of the tournament to come but the message was clear.

Ireland and France may have risen to form a leading quartet of contenders but the Webb Ellis Cup will not be prized easily out of South Africa’s hands.

Back to lead them again is Siya Kolisi, having overcome a knee injury. When the South Africa captain underwent surgery in late April, the worst fears were that the flanker may miss this tournament entirely, but a quick recovery saw him able to return in Cardiff for the warm-up encounter with Wales and immediately show why he remains such a vital back row figure.

There may be more outstanding individual talents in South Africa’s side, but it is a squad is drawn from many corners of the Rainbow Nation and their captain is a unifying force, a calm leader around which they can rally. His fitness is an unquestioned boost both for South Africa and the sport, with one of rugby’s most recognisable and inspirational figures ready to star again.

Kolisi’s fellow flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, World Player of the Year after his role in the 2019 win, has also been back to his best of late while the tight five again frightens, with Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi a top class hooking one-two punch.

There are more questions behind the scrum. The chief weapons in 2019 were forward might, fly half Pollard’s boot and the blitz defence spearheaded by centre Am. Neither has made Nienaber’s squad due to fitness issues.

But this is an evolved Springboks side, arguably with more attacking layers. Manie Libbok steps up at fly half in Pollard’s stead and is an intuitive creator and runner, while full back Willie le Roux continues to roll back the years in a pair of silken slippers as an incredibly classy second distributing option.

Having enjoyed a slightly easier route to the final after an opening defeat to New Zealand four years ago, South Africa’s 2023 schedule is brutal, starting with an encounter with Scotland and continuing through pool meetings with Ireland and Tonga. One of France or New Zealand could await in the quarter final.

Fatigue could yet play a role in capping their ambitions. The realignment of the four South African club sides into the European structure means that many of this squad are playing to a northern hemisphere club schedule and southern hemisphere international itinerary. Since the British and Irish Lions toured in the summer of 2021, few Springboks have had long gaps in which to rest and recuperate.

But the Twickenham demolition job on the All Blacks was a timely reminder of just what sort of side the defending world champions are, and the depth at their disposal. In terms of gameplan clarity and efficacy, the Springboks remain unrivalled – and that certainty could be enough to take them to a record fourth men’s World Cup crown.

Coach: Jacques Nienaber

Captain: Siya Kolisi

Key player: Eben Etzebeth – The lock colossus just seems to get better and better more than a decade into his test career.

Rising Star: Canan Moodie – The smooth striding Moodie starred at outside centre against New Zealand but is likely to start the tournament on the wing.

Big question: Can Manie Libbok add an extra attacking dimension to take South Africa to back-to-back triumphs?

Forwards: Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane; Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Jean Kleyn, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman; Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese.

Backs: Faf de Klerk, Jaden Hendrikse, Cobus Reinach, Grant Williams; Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse; Damian de Allende, Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel; Kurt-Lee Arendse, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie.

Sunday 10 September: South Africa vs Scotland, Pool B (Marseille, 4.45pm)

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