Three Test centurions, Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers, have been included in the 31-man Springbok squad that will travel to England in September for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
De Villiers will captain the Springboks at the global rugby showpiece and Matfield is vice-captain, with inspirational loose forward Schalk Burger – one of seven DHL Stormers stars in the squad – providing captaincy back-up to De Villiers and Matfield.
And joining fellow DHL Stormers stars De Villiers and Burger in the selection mix, are prop Frans Malherbe, lock Eben Etzebeth, flanker Siya Kolisi, No.8 Duane Vermeulen and centre Damian de Allende – Malherbe, Etzebeth, Kolisi and De Allende having, earlier this week, also re-committed themselves to the franchise on long-term deals.
Matfield and Burger will take part in their fourth Rugby World Cup, while De Villiers, Habana, JP Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis will play in their third. Six players who featured in 2011, are back for their second tournament.
Sixteen members of the 31-man squad, 12 of whom made their Test debut under Heyneke Meyer since 2012, will have their first taste of Rugby World Cup action.
One uncapped player was included in Rudy Paige, who was first selected to tour with the Springboks last November.
The average age of the selected players is a little over 26 and the combined number of caps in the squad is 1,297.
Springbok coach Meyer said it was very tough to select the final squad from the wider training group that had been together for the last two months.
“Every single player in our wider group worked incredibly hard and to cut the squad to 31 was probably the most difficult selection I’ve faced in my coaching career,” said Meyer.
“In the end, the selectors decided the 31 players named were the best we have at the moment but that is not to say any of the others won’t have a role to play, with injuries a reality in our game.
“Because of the size of the squad, we also had to give more consideration to utility players, who can move around between positions, such as Schalk Brits and Pieter-Steph du Toit, both of whom can play in the back row, as well as Coenie Oosthuizen, who can pack down on both sides of the front row.
“A number of our backs, such as JP, Ruan, Pat Lambie, Handré Pollard, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Lwazi Mvovo and Zane Kirchner, are all comfortable to play in more than one position.
“I think the squad has a great balance between youth and experience while keeping together the core of the team that did the country proud in the last few years. We also have a number of players who know what it takes to win a World Cup and their knowledge will be very valuable.
“We’re going to England with the hopes of a nation on our shoulders and we would really like to make our country proud, but we’re under no illusions about how tough it will be.
“The gap between all the nations playing in the tournament has shrunk over the years and this will probably be the closest World Cup yet. But the players have really worked very hard over the last two months and by time we get to Eastbourne for our first match, we’ll hopefully be firing on all cylinders.”
Meyer said that although a number of players currently recovering from injuries were selected, every player in the squad is expected to be fit for the Springboks’ opening match of the Rugby World Cup, on 19 September against Japan.
De Villiers (fractured jaw), Duane Vermeulen (neck), Jannie du Plessis (knee), Fourie du Preez (knee), Willie le Roux (ankle), Francois Louw (shoulder) and Coenie Oosthuizen (neck) are all recovering from various injuries but are close to full match fitness.
“The best medical scenarios were taken into consideration with the selection process. Our medical team have worked incredibly hard with these players and we’re confident they will be ready to be considered to play Japan,” said Meyer.
“Although they have not been able to train fully with the rest of the squad at times, they have really worked hard on their fitness and all of them are incredibly fit, some of them in the best shape of their lives.”
The Springboks will be travelling to England on the back of a good record at Rugby World Cups, although the 2011 tournament ended in disappointment when the team got knocked out in the quarterfinals.
“The Boks have generally done very well at previous tournaments and our aim will be to build on that,” said Meyer.
“A lot of our players featured in 2007 and 2011 and will know what it takes to succeed. There is a lot of talk about the permutations for the quarterfinals, but our aim is only on the first game, against Japan.”
The Springboks will open their Rugby World Cup campaign against Japan on September 19 in Brighton. Their second pool game is on September 26 against Samoa in Birmingham, then follow the Tests against Scotland in Newcastle on October 3, before the South Africans conclude their pool fixtures against the USA in London on October 7.
As per an agreement reached with the provinces in January, all the players who did not make the final Rugby World Cup squad have returned to their provinces and will be available for Absa Currie Cup duty from next week. The same applies to players contracted to overseas clubs.
The Springbok squad is as follows (in alphabetical order):
Jean de Villiers (captain)
Damian de Allende
Lodewyk de Jager
Bismarck du Plessis
Jannie du Plessis
Fourie du Preez
Pieter-Steph du Toit
Willie le Roux