DM168

SQUAD SELECTION

Springbok coaches are likely to opt for A and B teams in Rugby Championship

Springbok coaches are likely to opt for A and B teams in Rugby Championship
Steven Kitshoff of the Springboks is tackled during the Rugby Championship match between the Australia Wallabies and South Africa Springboks at Allianz Stadium on 3n September 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Mark Kolbe / Getty Images)

The 2019 Rugby Championship offers some clues regarding the Springbok coaches’ approach to the early stages of the 2023 season.

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will take a page out of their 2019 playbook and select two different squads for the first two games of the 2023 Rugby Championship season.

As was the case four years ago, a second-string side will face the Wallabies in Pretoria on 8 July, and the strongest available team will travel to New Zealand to tackle the All Blacks a week later.

In the 2019 Rugby Championship, one team was picked to play against the Wallabies in Johannesburg in the tournament opener, and another was sent ahead to New Zealand to acclimatise ahead of the all-important second fixture.

The Boks didn’t win in Wellington, but a draw went a long way towards earning them a first Rugby Championship title in 10 years.

By the time the Boks arrived at the 2019 World Cup, Erasmus had a clear idea of his A and B squads. The strongest team was backed for the big pool matches against the All Blacks and Italy, and the second-stringers were deployed against tier-two nations Namibia and Canada.

Erasmus and Nienaber may continue to employ this selection policy when the Boks travel to the World Cup in France later this year. Of more immediate interest is how they intend to manage the current 42-man squad over two crucial Rugby Championship games that could set the tone for the season.

Ticking boxes correctly

Closer analysis of the 2019 Rugby Championship reveals that the two squads were relatively similar in terms of strength and experience. The team that went ahead to New Zealand was certainly more match-fit and settled.

But the combination that fronted the Wallabies contained a heady mix of rookies, returning veterans and players fighting their way back from serious injuries.

Eben Etzebeth captained a powerful side that included Beast Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit in the starting pack, as well as Makazole Mapimpi on the wing.

Later that year, these six players started for the Boks in the World Cup playoffs.

Though winning was a priority, Erasmus used the fixture against Australia to give a number of fringe players an opportunity. Herschel Jantjies repaid Erasmus’s faith by scoring two tries on debut. Frans Steyn and Cobus Reinach, returning after long periods in the international wilderness, also proved that they could be an asset to the World Cup squad. What’s more, Erasmus mixed and matched the following week in Wellington.

Though the bulk of the advance party started against the All Blacks, so too did Etzebeth, Du Toit and Mapimpi. RG Snyman, earmarked for the New Zealand clash, was deployed from the bench.

If Damian Willemse passes the fitness test, he should travel to New Zealand as South Africa’s first-choice flyhalf. (Photo: Mark Kolbe / Getty Images)

Get the balance right

In the truncated 2023 Rugby Championship, the Bok coaches look set to mix and match once more. The priorities remain the same, with South Africa chasing a big win against Australia at home, and a positive result in New Zealand a week later.

A number of World Cup winners remain in tow, but some of the personnel – and indeed the team dynamic – are slightly different.

Bok captain Siya Kolisi and first-choice flyhalf Handré Pollard are expected to miss the Rugby Championship campaign, and the team may just about cope in their absence. The availability of Damian Willemse will influence how the coaches select both sets of flyhalfs and fullbacks for the two Tests.

If Willemse passes the fitness test, he should travel to New Zealand as South Africa’s first-choice flyhalf. He enjoyed a successful stint at No 10 last November in the injury-enforced absence of Pollard and dovetailed well with veteran fullback Willie le Roux.

Pollard’s goal-kicking and experience might be missed in a tight clash against the All Blacks, but the combination of Willemse and Le Roux will ask questions of that vulnerable New Zealand defence.

Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa during the Autumn Nations Series international Test match between France and South Africa (Springboks) at Velodrome stadium on 12 November 2022 in Marseille, France. (Photo: Jean Catuffe / Getty Images)

Two starting XVs

With Willemse available, the Bok coaches may select a starting XV in New Zealand similar to this: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx and 1 Steven Kitshoff (captain).

If Willemse doesn’t recover in time, Manie Libbok should be backed to wear the No 10 jersey. Etzebeth and Jaden Hendrikse are nursing injuries and may not feature until later in the tournament.

Once a call is made on Willemse’s availability for the all-important Test in Auckland on 15 July, the coaches can finalise the combination to start against the Wallabies a week earlier.

As was the case in 2019, there are bound to be several really strong and experienced options in the “B” team, as well as the odd overlap in selections over the two matches.

All things considered, the starting XV at Loftus Versfeld may be as follows: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Duane Vermeulen (captain), 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Bongi Mbonambi and 1 Ox Nché.

The bench should feature Vincent Koch, Jean-Luc du Preez and a few World Cup hopefuls such as Evan Roos and Grant Williams. Don’t be surprised if Nienaber deploys the versatile Williams on the wing.

A new Bok captain

In 2019, Erasmus backed Etzebeth to lead the Boks in the first match against the Wallabies, and Vermeulen to captain the side the following week against the All Blacks.

This time around, the Boks will be without two captaincy options in Kolisi and Pollard, and possibly Etzebeth. Vermeulen may receive another chance to lead in Pretoria, but someone else may have to assume the responsibility in Auckland.

Kitshoff has been mentioned by the coaches as a strong option, as have Du Toit and Lukhanyo Am.

The make-up of the front row will be a fierce point of debate. Though Bok fans have been encouraged to accept that the combination that starts is not necessarily superior to the one that finishes, the coaches may indeed favour a specific starting trio for the assignment against the All Blacks.

In the past World Cup cycle, Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe were deemed best suited for the high-intensity clashes against the All Blacks. The coaches have rotated their front row a lot more in the ensuing years and, bar the selection of Marx – one of the strongest breakdown exponents in world rugby – may well spring a few surprises in this department over the next few months. Any way you look at it, we’re in for a fascinating start to the Rugby Championship. DM

This article first appeared in Daily Mavericks sister publication DM168, which is available for R29 countrywide.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Donald says:

    I think Elton’s role in the 2019 success is under appreciated. He was excellent in that Ellis Park game and the b side games in the world cup.

    The boks also played a slightly different style in those games; faster, more evolved. ‘Squidge’, the youtube analyst, had some compelling theories about that strategy. Elton was essential to it and quite happily took leadership heat when it failed. i.e. the semi-exhibition game we lost in the US in 2018.

    Elton at fly-half with Pollard at twelve was also a powerful and under appreciated part of our New Zealand success. I’ve never really understood why Pollard’s wobblies, which have happened about as often as Elton’s, have been accepted as just part of a pro’s life, while Elton’s have been made some character flaw or something.

    I’d say it’s maybe partly a subconscious public prejudice or race thing but then I remember Gaffie du Toit; and Willemse and Libok don’t get the Elton glasses. Some great flyhalves get these labels that the stats don’t support and hope Elton gets and takes his chance.

  • Matt Cowan says:

    Think you nailed the potential starting XV’s but I reckon they might give Am the armband in NZ.

  • ian bowes-taylor says:

    I think that Elton has passed his sell by date, let him rest in peace. he has no chance of making the squad.

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