Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus recently said that his Rugby World Cup squad is “80 or 90% selected”, adding,”there’s a lot of place for guys to break open the door and get in to that team”.
Although only four weeks into the Super Rugby season, a number of uncapped players are clearly doing everything in their power to gain the attention of the selectors. Sevens convert Rosko Specman has been breaking ankles and busting lungs, Jason Jenkins and Hanro Liebenberg have been the Bulls’ bash brothers, Marnus Schoeman must be a nightmare to play against, and young Aphelele Fassi has been dumbfounding opponents with his footwork.
For many of those mentioned, the only way onto the plane to Japan is via a slump or an injury to one of the established names ahead of them. But one wildcard player could book a window seat on performance alone, and that’s Wandisile Simelane.
You’re thinking, “Oh, here we go – another emotional call about a player who has only played one game of Super Rugby!”
Actually, Simelane’s mouth-watering performance for the Lions last week didn’t surprise anyone who witnessed him bagging tries for fun as a Baby Bok in 2017 and 2018. Hearts jumped when his debut Super Rugby start was announced and, against the Jaguares, he made 105 running metres from 11 carries, beat 8 defenders, scored a blistering try, and clearly displayed his game-breaking abilities with a beautifully-timed basketball pass that set up a try for Kwagga Smith.
Of course, with just one match played, he is going to need an extraordinary run of form to make the RWC squad, but if there’s one word that sums up Simelane’s talent, it is just that.
There is rarely space for more than two outside centres in a RWC squad of 31. In 2015, Jesse Kriel was the sole specialist. Given Lukhanyo Am’s red-hot form, along with the quality of his performances in the Green and Gold to date, Kriel will likely have to make way for the youngster.
Think of Jesse Kriel and you see a freak of athleticism – all muscle and sinew, the perfect combination of pace and power. These physical characteristics have resulted in some fantastic moments on the international stage, no less his try against New Zealand back in October.
That said, he has struggled to exert himself at 13 in the Springbok jersey, and rarely dominates in that position even at provincial level. He was excellent recently against the Sharks, but lateral running has been an issue for him in the past and he doesn’t create sufficient space for those outside him, like Am does all so naturally.
While he’s an effective one-on-one tackler, his defensive organisation (albeit it in a new system) doesn’t make up for his shortcomings in attack.
There will be comments made about Simelane’s experience, or lack of, but you may remember the contributions of another young centre as the Boks claimed the trophy back in 2007.
Arguments will be made for Kriel’s utility in being able to cover the wing position, but Simelane has also played much of his best rugby there for SA U20s, the Golden Lions, and Wits.
Given the solidity of Am as a first-choice player in the outside centre position, and the experience of De Allende and South Africa’s other likely options at 12, Simelane would be a fantastic addition to the squad. He’s still raw at this stage, but those who know him always mention his maturity.
World Cup final. New Zealand four points ahead with 10 minutes to go. Simelane runs onto the pitch…sounds like the right guy to win it, right?
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Nick Law is a London-based Creative Manager, music and food nerd and South African rugby obsessive. Follow him on Twitter: @NickLaw86