When Willie le Roux hared off to Wasps in 2017 he knew that he was putting his Springbok career at risk such were the stricter rules surrounding the use of overseas players at the time. But he was still in the Green and Gold two years later and his experience at fullback was important in winning the 2019 World Cup.
And now, with almost another two years having passed, Le Roux is still the first-choice fullback at an evergreen 31-years-old. This is both a blessing and a concern because should the Toyota Verblitz star get injured, it is probably the position in the squad for the series against the British and Irish Lions where coach Jacques Nienaber has the least back-up, especially with Warrick Gelant unlikely to recover in time from his ACL surgery.
Damian Willemse was a late call-up to the World Cup squad as a replacement for Jesse Kriel and has only accumulated six caps. His recent form for the Stormers has been promising rather than spectacular and there are many who believe Sharks fullback Aphelele Fassi should now be considered the back-up to Le Roux.
Fassi himself is uncapped though and the development of his undoubted talent was put back a bit by the serious shoulder injury he suffered last year.
So fullback looks a little thin for Nienaber’s liking, and he could be looking at utility players like Francois Steyn, Johan Goosen or Raymond Rhule to provide cover there or maybe even Kriel, Handre Pollard or Sbu Nkosi in an emergency.
In terms of the all-important tight five, while there is pleasing depth in the front row with in-form stars like Bongi Mbonambi, Lizo Gqoboka, Ox Nche, Scarra Ntubeni, Joseph Dweba and Trevor Nyakane to choose from, injuries have marred Nienaber’s options at lock.
World Cup winners RG Snyman and Lood de Jager are both racing against time to be fit and are unlikely to make the 45-man squad that will be announced on Saturday.
While the pair of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert are absolutely world-class, there is a lack of experience thereafter.
Marvin Orie has been capped only three times and Jason Jenkins has played just a solitary Test. The other two main contenders for a place – Ruan Nortje and JD Schickerling – would both be making their international debuts.
Toulouse hardman Rynhardt Elstadt has helped his French club to European glory and top of the log domestically, and can cover lock as well, but has played just two Tests. The Springbok management will be loathe to move Pieter-Steph du Toit to the second row given what a tremendous impact he has had playing on the flank.