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Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber's match squad gam...

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RUGBY

Springbok coach Nienaber’s match squad gamble should pay off

Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

The Springbok coach’s decision to make changes to the match squad is bold and – in the context of squad development – necessary.

Since returning to the Springbok setup in 2018, head coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus have taken a series of calculated risks when selecting their teams and squads. 

Those risks have yielded some monumental long-term rewards – such as a World Cup title and a series victory against the British & Irish Lions.

The policy of splitting the squad into “A” and “B” teams has been criticised as much as it’s been lauded. The results, of course, speak for themselves.

Nienaber and Erasmus have struck a balance between winning matches and developing the wider squad with the future in mind. 

Young and inexperienced players have been granted opportunities, and a number of combinations have been trialled over the past four years.

Nienaber’s latest move may appear extreme, but the Boks could reap the benefits later this year and, more importantly, at the 2023 World Cup.

Rotation up for grabs 

The latest selections are particularly bold and risky, even by Nienaber or Erasmus’s standards.

Nienaber made 14 changes to the starting XV – and 19 to the match 23 – ahead of the second Test against Bloemfontein. Those changes include two debutants in the run-on side and a further four uncapped players on the bench.

The timing of these changes has caught many by surprise. Nienaber himself previously suggested that the fringe players would only receive an opportunity in the event of the “A” team winning the first two Tests and taking an unassailable lead in the three-match series.

The coach hinted at the prospect of further opportunities for these fringe players in the Rugby Championship fixtures against Argentina, and for the South Africa A side on the tour to Europe in November.

Since the first Test, however, Nienaber has had a change of heart. The upshot is that every member of the 43-man squad – 

bar flyhalf Johan Goosen, who is still recovering from long-term injury – will have had a run for the Boks over the first two Tests of the season.

Though this policy will rob the Boks of the chance to build some momentum, it will ensure that they tick the box of squad development.

Welsh slam Bok development plans

South African fans and critics have welcomed Nienaber’s willingness to experiment. In the United Kingdom, however, the call to rotate the squad has gone down like a lead balloon.

Wales legend Gareth Edwards believes that the Bok coach has disrespected the Dragons by fielding a second-string team.

“If there had been five or six changes, you would maybe have raised an eyebrow. But 14 changes is overwhelming,” said Edwards.

”I don’t think it shows respect for Wales, and looking logically, there is only one way to view it and that’s to give them a good tonking, as they say.

“These days, everyone is building towards the World Cup, so they have a different outlook. Yes, make changes, but not that many.”

How Boks divided and conquered

In 2018, Erasmus selected two different matchday squads for the first two Tests of the season.

The “B” team travelled to Washington, DC, to battle Wales in a one-off Test, while the “A” side remained in Johannesburg to prepare for the first game of a crucial three-match series against England.

As many as 13 players made their international debuts for South Africa in Washington, DC. The Boks lost against Wales, but Erasmus and Nienaber learnt a great deal about those players. 

They decided to invest in Makazole Mapimpi, for example, and the winger went on to score the title-clinching try in the World Cup final a year later.

A number of veterans were backed in the first two Tests against England, but Erasmus was bold enough to hand RG Snyman, Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi debuts. The Boks won the first two Tests to take an unassailable lead in the series. A number of fringe players were given a run in the third game.

Faced with a similar logistical ­challenge in the first two weeks of the 2019 Rugby Championship, Erasmus split his squad once more. 

The “B” team was tasked with playing the Wallabies in Johannesburg, while the “A” team travelled to New Zealand for an important game against the All Blacks.

Rookies such as Herschel Jantjies and Rynhardt Elstadt played a major role in the bonus-point win against the Wallabies. That result set the platform for the Boks’ first Rugby Championship title success since 2009.

The “A” team managed to draw against the All Blacks in Wellington before blowing Argentina away in the subsequent clash in Salta. By the time the Boks arrived at the World Cup in Japan, they boasted a wealth of depth in all positions.

The “B” team included veterans such as Schalk Brits, who doubled as a mentor to all players across the 31-man squad. 

When the “A” side lost Trevor Nyakane to a tournament-ending injury, Vincent Koch stepped up to fill the void in the front row.

Steady stream of debutants

Erasmus blooded 23 new players across the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Many of those players – such as Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Herschel Jantjies – have gone on to become household names.

During that period, Erasmus also recalled veterans such as Frans Steyn, Marcell Coetzee and Cobus Reinach. All three remain part of the Boks’ future plans. Balance has always been a part of Erasmus’s – and Nienaber’s – philosophy.

With the 2021 Lions series and the Rugby Championship staged back-to-back, Nienaber enjoyed minimal opportunities to experiment. That said, the coach did blood six new players over the course of the season. In the injury-enforced absence of Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese established himself as the premier No 8 option – and was backed to start the first Test of the 2022 season against Wales.

Come the end of the second Test against Wales, Nienaber will have blooded eight new players in 2022 – and a total of 14 during his tenure as head coach.

The challenge from here, of course, is giving the entire 43-man group enough game time in the period leading up to the 2023 World Cup.

It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see a “B” team featuring at some stage in the Rugby Championship – perhaps against Argentina – and in one of the matches on the four-Test tour to Europe in November.

The fringe players should receive further opportunities for the South Africa “A” side in the three midweek fixtures on that tour – with one match against Bristol Bears already confirmed. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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  • I’m afraid I totally agree with Gareth Edwards’ comments. Fielding a B team against this Welsh side is more than a little arrogant!

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