Apart from numerous alignment camps with players from the various franchises during the early part of the season, the Boks’ year really clicked into gear when Rassie Erasmus, Director of Rugby, announced the first squad of 2019.
Two uncapped players – Herschel Jantjies and Rynhardt Elstadt – were included in the initial squad, while a third, Lizo Gqoboka, joined the group with 12 other players after the Vodacom Bulls’ and Cell C Sharks’ Vodacom Super Rugby campaigns were halted at the quarter-final stage.
Shortly thereafter, Erasmus called up Marco van Staden when it became clear Siya Kolisi’s knee injury would sideline him for longer than initially expected.
That wasn’t the only setback for the Boks. Aphiwe Dyantyi, the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2018, was also ruled out after he picked up hamstring injury at team training.
After two weeks of rigorous training in Pretoria, Eben Etzebeth was named captain for the opening match of the Castle Lager Rugby Championship, against Australia in Johannesburg, and Erasmus decided to include all three uncapped players in the match-23 for the Test at Emirates Airline Park.
Erasmus explained that the plan was to mix his training squad up for the various Tests in the season in order to give proper game time to as many players in the group.
“We want to win the Castle Lager Rugby Championship and we have a specific plan, which starts Saturday with the first Test against the Wallabies,” said Erasmus.
Etzebeth shrugged off any suggestion of a second string line-up for the Wallaby Test as he led a team featuring a Springbok centurion, three half centurions and five more players with more than 35 caps, including players who have claimed the SA Rugby Player of the Year award in three of the last four years.
“We all have a responsibility when we pull on that jersey and that lies with the 23 in South Africa as much as anyone else,” said Etzebeth.
The Boks started the season like a house on fire and Jantjies scored twice in a dream debut as they dismantled Australia by 35-17, a victory that had Erasmus smiling because of a number of great individual performances rather than a polished team effort.
“A few guys certainly put their hands up for Rugby World Cup selection and although there was some rustiness and all our combinations weren’t settled, we are still happy with the win,” said Erasmus.
The match statistics confirmed what Erasmus had said, but the strong set-piece and defensive performances were good early in the season.
There wasn’t much time to dwell on the bonus-point victory though as the Boks had a plane to catch to Wellington, where the bulk of the squad joined up with a number of players who had travelled to New Zealand earlier to negate the effect of the long trip across.
Erasmus named a much-changed side for the Test against the All Blacks, with Duane Vermeulen taking over the captaincy from Etzebeth with regular skipper Siya Kolisi still sidelined.
SA Rugby’s Director of Rugby reiterated the respect they have for the All Blacks: “We know we will have to be at our very best to be competitive against the All Blacks on Saturday and that is why we have sent a group of players in advance to Wellington, so they could acclimatise after the long trip over from South Africa.”
Vermeulen was very honoured to be named Bok captain and admitted feeling a bit of “controlled emotion” in the build up to a massive Test at the Westpac Stadium in the Kiwi capital.
With a handful of minutes left on the clock, the All Blacks were in control at 16-9, but Herschel Jantjies stepped up to the plate for a second week in a row and scored a superb try at the death, which Handré Pollard converted for a 16-16 draw.
Erasmus attributed the nail-biting draw to a heavy stroke of luck and said: “To play the No 1 team in the world and be lucky at the end there, it was almost like last year (when the Boks won in Wellington).”
The Boks’ defensive effort was massive and the three loose forwards, Kwagga Smith, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Vermeulen, made a staggering 59 tackles between them, while Cheslin Kolbe also contributed with 14 tackles.
The Boks relocated to Auckland where a couple of players joined the squad for a week-long training before the trek to Argentina, where the Pumas were waiting in Salta.
Erasmus said the plan to remain in New Zealand had worked well and that the Boks had “grown into a very tight unit”, achieving the goals they set for themselves.
The team for the Salta Test was similar to the one that played in Wellington, except for a brand-new front row of Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane.
“The Pumas are a very difficult team to play at home and they will be fired up for this one in front of their passionate crowd in Salta,” said Erasmus.
A bonus point victory would secure the Castle Lager Rugby Championship title for the Boks, and Vermeulen said winning the trophy would be extra motivation for all the work the players have put in, but “we have to remember there are still other teams in the running to win it and if you make a mistake someone else will take it.”
Earlier on the day, the Wallabies smashed the All Blacks, which changed the permutations for the Boks, but they still delivered on what they set out to do and recorded a fantastic 46-13 victory over Los Pumas, scoring five tries for the second time in a Test in 2019.
Vermeulen was ecstatic that the Boks managed to bag some silverware but warned against complacency, saying they need to work on their consistency and executing their plans on the field.
The Boks were sublime in the set-pieces and demolished the strong Argentinean scrum, forcing no less than six penalties.
With the Castle Lager Rugby Championship secured, the Boks returned to South Africa for a second match against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, which would also be their Farewell Test and the last opportunity for supporters to see their heroes in action on local soil.
Kolisi returned to the squad after playing in the Currie Cup for DHL Western Province and Erasmus was excited to see his captain back with the Boks.
“Siya is a guy we desperately want to be involved on Saturday and we will involve him but it will be limited minutes. We won’t rush him – we need to carefully manage his return,” said Erasmus.
The Boks’ plans suffered a setback on the Tuesday before the Test when Swys de Bruin requested to be released from his role as an attack consultant with the team, for “personal and medical seasons”.
“Swys made a great contribution to the squad in his time with us and I’d like to thank him on behalf of his fellow management and the players he has worked with in the past 12 months,” said Erasmus.
Kolisi was included in the starting team for the match for a cameo role, with Schalk Brits entrusted with the captaincy for the Test at Loftus Versfeld.
Erasmus made many changes to the side and a number of players were given an opportunity to stake a claim for Rugby World Cup selection.
“No matter what has happened before this weekend, the momentum we will go to the World Cup with will depend on what happens on Saturday,” Erasmus said.
For the ever-smiling Brits, this was a massive opportunity for some players to show what they can do in the green and gold.
“We just want to put up a performance that our other team mates will be proud of. We have a specific plan and a process and if we follow that then hopefully we will be successful,” said Brits.
It was a scrappy Test but the Boks won 24-18, mainly thanks to two superb tries by Sbu Nkosi, and a brilliant kicking performance by Elton Jantjies.
Erasmus admitted afterwards that he knew it was going to be a grind and that it wasn’t going to be a free-flowing game.
“Argentina could have beaten New Zealand this season with that maul at the end, and they lost to Australia by six and they could have won that game as well, and I knew they were going to come for us,” said Erasmus.
The Pumas’ set-piece play improved vastly from the week before, but the Boks still held their own and did what was necessary for the win.
The first part of the Boks’ season finished with a training camp in Bloemfontein, where 36 players gathered as the countdown to the announcement of the Rugby World Cup squad, on 26 August in Johannesburg, started in all earnest.