After missing out an entire year of international rugby due to the Covid pandemic, the world champion Springboks returned to action in 2021 with an up-and-down year of rugby.
Through the highs of winning the British and Irish Lions series to the lows of losing twice to Australia and finishing third in the Rugby Championship, a number of players stood out.
Captain Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende and Makazole Mapimpi were deservedly picked as the five players to contend for the SA Rugby Player of the Year award after enjoying superb seasons.
However, a number of other players also made stellar contributions to the side this year but flew under the radar despite some impressive showings.
In a country blessed with an abundance of front-row talent, Ox Nche made a massive statement this season and confirmed himself as one of the core six-man rotating front rankers that the Boks deploy.
Having made his debut in a one-off match against Wales in the United States back in 2018, Nche had to wait until July this year to get his second shot against Georgia.
He then started in the opening Test against the British and Irish Lions, putting in a monster performance, only to get injured which saw him miss the final two games of the series. He recovered, however, to feature in Rugby Championship games against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, before playing every match on the end-of-year tour in a fearsome starting front row alongside Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane.
Nche has certainly made his mark and will be in the Bok set-up again next year.
Once again proving his worth as a utility forward in a solid season for the Boks, Mostert played in 12 of the national side’s 13 games this year, starting eight times while featuring off the bench in the other four.
He began the season in his favoured position of lock, against Georgia and in the first two British and Irish Lions Tests. He then switched to blindside flank to fill the void left by the injured Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Mostert played the final Lions Test, as well as one match of the Rugby Championship against Argentina and both games against Australia, on the side of the scrum. He then reverted to an impact player for four of the Boks’ last five matches of the 2021 campaign, featuring off the bench twice against New Zealand and against Wales and England, while he started at lock against Scotland.
His versatility makes Mostert a vital part of the Springbok squad and he will be for many more years.
Despite playing in just seven of the Boks’ 13 games and starting in only two of them, Jantjies made a statement at the back end of the season with Handre Pollard struggling for regular form.
Jantjies played off the bench in the side’s first two games of the year against Georgia and the British and Irish Lions, before starting in the first Rugby Championship match against Argentina where he put in a very accomplished showing.
He did not play again until the final match of the Rugby Championship where he came on in the 47th minute, shifting the struggling Pollard into midfield and helping guide the Springboks to a morale boosting win by kicking the match-winning penalty after the full-time hooter.
Jantjies was desperately unlucky not to get more game time on the end-of-year tour as he impressed off the bench against Wales and England, while he put in a fantastic performance in his start against Scotland, as the Boks comfortably won that match.
Having struggled for consistent form in his international career so far, Jantjies will have given the coaching staff a lot of confidence in him as a permanent back-up to Pollard going forward.
Faf de Klerk
Despite his much maligned kicking game, De Klerk showed what an integral part of the Springbok set-up he is during an injury disrupted season.
He played in only six games for the SA team, with a leg muscle strain ruling him out of the final British and Irish Lions Test and first two Rugby Championship games against Argentina, before he then needed surgery on a hip flexor injury that saw him miss the end-of-year tour.
In his absence, the Boks struggled to find a stable replacement with both Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach struggling to establish themselves as a starting scrumhalf.
De Klerk’s calm head under pressure and dedication to following the game plan were sorely missed in many of those games and the Springboks will hope that his injury concerns are behind him when a busy 2022 international season starts in mid-year.
Though he played just seven games, starting two, the ageless Steyn proved he remains a useful impact player for the Springboks as they head towards the 2023 World Cup.
During the season the 34-year-old star became the first ever Bok to have played for more than 15 years, having made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2006.
Steyn started at centre for the Boks in matches against Georgia and Argentina, but he was left out of the whole British and Irish Lions series and missed one game against Argentina and two against Australia in the Rugby Championship.
He then featured off the bench in every one of the Boks’ last five matches of the season, however, becoming an integral member of the squad as fullback Willie le Roux struggled for form. Steyn replaced Le Roux at half-time in the Boks’ win against the All Blacks and in their one-point loss to England. He also came on in the 13th minute against Wales, putting in a Man-of-the-Match performance after fullback Damian Willemse was ruled out with concussion.
Steyn is thus expected to have a massive role to play for the Boks over the coming few years, as he continues to put in top performances.