Jesse Kriel, veteran of 46 Tests, failed to respond as well as hoped to treatment on a hamstring strain, sustained in the Boks’ tournament opener against the All Blacks in Yokohama 10 days ago.
Coach Rassie Erasmus eventually took the painful decision to cull his most experienced midfielder from the tournament after medical advice indicated Kriel might need another month of rehabilitation.
Stormers’ starlet Damian Willemse has been called up as a replacement. Willemse, 21, is currently playing for English club side Saracens on a short-term contract.
The English club giants recruited Willemse as cover after their squad was massively depleted by RWC 2019 call-ups.
The versatile youngster, who can play fullback, flyhalf or inside centre, will only arrive in Japan on Thursday. Willemse has won five Test caps but hasn’t played any international rugby in 2019 after a knee injury ruled him out of the Rugby Championship earlier in 2019.
He made a full return to fitness and featured for Western Province in the latter stages of the Currie Cup in August, but was omitted from the original Bok RWC 2019 squad.
Kriel is the second member of the original 31-man squad to have his tournament cut short. Prop Trevor Nyakane tore a calf muscle against the All Blacks and was replaced by Thomas du Toit.
If the Boks beat Italy in their third Pool match in Shizuoka on Friday, they are all but through to the quarterfinals.
Considering the play-offs are nearly three weeks away, there was scant thought given to keeping Kriel in the squad as he and Lukhanyo Am are the only outside centres in the group.
Ultimately, though, Erasmus didn’t feel it was worth gambling on a player’s future involvement in the tournament when signs of imminent recovery were not promising.
It makes Am’s continued fitness a huge priority for the Boks if they reach the knockout stages of the tournament as expected.
Outside centre is the pivotal defensive organiser in the Boks’ system and Kriel and Am have been involved as the starting No 13 in every one of Erasmus’s 21 Tests as coach.
With the Boks’ hard-pressing defence, which pushes from the outside in, it requires a superb reader of the game to know when to press, and how hard to press. Am and Kriel have been developed over two years to fulfil that role.
It cannot be overstated what a huge blow losing Kriel is to the squad.
Kriel has started at outside centre 11 times and Am 10 under Erasmus. There is no one else who has been primed for one of the hardest and most technical jobs in rugby.
“Damian would have been more involved with us this year but for injury, but he is familiar with our systems and should have no problem slotting in,” Erasmus said.
“He has the ability to play in a number of positions in the back division, while other players can cover at outside centre.
“I feel for Jesse. He has been in the match-day 23 for almost every match since I took over and is a model professional. He was a key member of the squad.”
Erasmus’s plan is for current inside centre Damian de Allende to cover at 13.
If Kriel makes a full recovery when he is back in South Africa and the Boks require his services much later in the tournament, he could be recalled if there is an injury to another player. DM