As holders of the Webb-Ellis Cup, there will be a lot of expectation on South Africa to perform at the Rugby World Cup, and the Springboks will be aware of the significant target that will be on their backs.

They are generally regarded as one of the favourites for the title, which would be their fourth if they were able to secure it, but the fact that hosts France and world no.1s Ireland are so strong at this point in time means that it doesn’t seem as likely that they will get their hands on the trophy for a second consecutive time.

They have been in mixed form going into the tournament, with defeats to France and Ireland in last year’s Autumn internationals coming before a really strong 2023 Rugby Championship campaign, a thumping Summer Nations Series win in Cardiff and an impressive thrashing of New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium, but they will hope to find greater consistency before the tournament gets underway as they continue to find the right balance around the pitch.

Head Coach

South Africa are almost unique on the international stage, in that they have both a head coach in Jacques Nienaber and a Director of Rugby in Rassie Erasmus. However, whilst some would see this as a risky dynamic to have, due to the potential for confusion among players over mixed messages, the Springboks have made it work well for them, especially when it comes to major tournaments, as it has at times allowed them to split the squad into two and to field separate sides with equal strength for alternative games.

At the World Cup, Nienaber will be the face of the coaching staff, but Erasmus’ influence will be present when it comes to tactics and squad selections. His involvement has at times proven to be a hindrance, with his off-field conduct attracting investigations and unwanted attention, but there is no doubt that he will have a say in how South Africa perform in France and will be instrumental in taking them as far as they can go.

Attacking play

A great deal of South Africa’s attacking identity is built on box kicks and putting boot to ball, with them known for allowing the likes of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard (who will miss the tournament) and Willie le Roux to gain possession and find height.

The Springboks’ dependence on kicking has attracted criticism at times during Nienaber’s time in charge, with them at times relying on it too much and not running with the ball even when space is available ahead of them, but Nienaber’s vision has always been to create 1-v-1 situations around the field, and doing so means that his players need to be able to find spaces and to play more directly to teammates through kicking the ball into their vicinities.

Whilst they do have variety and will run with the ball at times, it would be a surprise if kicking didn’t form a major part of their tactics when the action gets underway in France.

Defensive play

Defensively, South Africa have become one of the most interesting teams to watch, because it is this area of the game where Nienaber made his name and which he has developed the most during his time with the Springboks.

As has been noted by several writers and journalists, he has almost changed the whole art of defending on a rugby field, with his philosophy being on disrupting rucks and preventing opposing sides from constructing phases with the ball. To do this, South Africa look to not only close down the ball-carrier but the player set to receive the ball too, meaning that opponents can never simply move the ball out of dangerous situations and keep their attacks alive and forcing them to continually rethink and readjust.

Set pieces are another key area of the game that the Springboks have worked on, and it is common to see them once again getting up to their opponents at speed and pressing each player in the line. This is generally aided by the wingers coming inside and helping to create a narrow structure, ensuring that there is a better chance of opponents being stopped earlier, and, once the ball hits the ground, South Africa then have the numbers to secure possession and launch their own attack.

Key players

Whilst there are several key players in the team, such as lock Eben Etzebeth, whose threat at rucks and ability to win turnovers is well-known, captain Siya Kolisi, who is a strong defender and who can carry with efficiency, and fly-half Manie Libbok, who has made an impact in Pollard’s absence, the area of the team that could have the biggest effect is the back three.

As mentioned, the wingers are key components in providing added numbers in defence, but they are also really important in attack too, with the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie indicating time and time again how they are effective finishers inside the red zone.

However, le Roux at full-back is the player who can make the real difference, with many noting the experienced former Wasps player’s ability to carry the ball and to delay passes until the last minute as a major reason for South Africa opening up their opponents on plenty of occasions. When watching him play, his ability to connect with those on either wing is always vital in creating try-scoring opportunities for the Springboks, and will be in France if they are to keep their opponents on the back foot.

Tournament prediction

As mentioned, South Africa are one of the teams seen as a favourite for the title, but some of their results in the last year will give a few people cause for concern. Nevertheless, the calibre of players that they have in their squad and the quality of some of their more recent performances means that there are unlikely to be too many concerns among their fans, and they will be hoping for another Springboks success story in France.

The point still remains though that Ireland and France are at their most powerful at this point in time, and, with both being in South Africa’s side of the draw, that could see them just miss out on becoming only the second team in history to successfully defend the Webb-Ellis Cup.