Boks’ best must be unleashed at Ellis Park ahead of RWC

Boks’ best must be unleashed at Ellis Park ahead of RWC
Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa during the Rugby Championship match against Australia at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on July 08, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

Despite SA’s recent loss to the All Blacks, there is evidence to suggest that their master plan is on track to yield more significant returns.

It’s tempting to dwell on the Boks’ recent performance in Auckland, and to consider what it signifies less than two months before the World Cup in France.

The Springboks recorded their third defeat to New Zealand in five matches during this four-year cycle. Unless Jacques Nienaber’s charges beat the All Blacks in the one-off at Twickenham later this year, the Kiwis will carry all the psychological momentum into a possible quarterfinal meeting this October.

The All Blacks produced a physical and tactical-kicking masterclass in the opening quarter of the match at Mount Smart Stadium and converted that dominance into a 17–0 lead. It proved that the Boks can be beaten at their own game. Ireland and France made a similar statement, of course, when they beat the Boks last November.

Big-picture priority

And yet, Rassie Erasmus and Nienaber won’t be overly concerned. Over the past six years, they have developed a reputation for their big-picture thinking.

The Boks are unlikely to win the Rugby Championship title from here. South Africa would need the Wallabies to beat the All Blacks by eight or more points in Melbourne on 29 July to stand a chance of lifting the trophy. Thereafter, they would need to claim a bonus-point win against Argentina at Ellis Park.

Typically, a second-place finish in this tournament would amount to a failure.

But as the four-year World Cup cycle nears a climax, there are other things to consider when assessing a team’s chances in the most demanding of competitions.

Nienaber has highlighted the importance of squad development since the start of his head-coaching tenure in 2020. Although the Boks went into the new cycle knowing that most of the World Cup winners would be available for the next tournament in France, the coaches pushed forward with plans to blood new players and combinations.

Attacking evolution

The greatest and most encouraging development, of course, has been in the department of attack.

The Boks still possess the raw power and technical supremacy to dominate the set pieces, mauls and collisions. For the most part, they have retained their ability to control the kicking game and win the aerial battle.

In the past 12 months, however, they’ve added more to their attacking arsenal and have scored some spectacular tries that have originated deep in their own territory. It’s fair to say that the team that travels to France in the coming months will be even more dangerous than the side that lifted the trophy in Japan four years ago.

The headache facing the coaches over the next few weeks is who to include in the 33-man World Cup squad and who to leave out. The more pressing matter is who to select for the next clash against Argentina.

Fielding the best

Back in 2019, the coaches selected their best available team for the last match of the Rugby Championship against Argentina in Salta. Thereafter, they fielded an experimental side featuring second- and third-choice players in the “friendly” against the Pumas in Pretoria.

Boks prepare for World Cup

Jacques Nienaber during a Bok training session at Markotter Sports Grounds in Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Photo: Ziyaad Douglas/Gallo Images)

It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Erasmus and Nienaber following suit this time round, with the A team running out in Johannesburg on 29 July, and the B side fronting the Pumas in Buenos Aires a week later. The 33-man World Cup squad will be announced after the subsequent game, on 8 August.

Fullback Willie le Roux has been one of the Boks’ standout performers over the past 12 months and is thriving in a dual-playmaker system alongside flyhalves such as Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse. Cheslin Kolbe showed his class in a losing cause in Auckland and, in the injury-enforced absence of Handré Pollard, has assumed the goal-kicking responsibilities.

Whether the selectors stick with Makazole Mapimpi or promote Kurt-Lee Arendse to the left wing is a serious point to ponder. The latter has scored 10 tries in eight Tests since making his debut last July. What Nienaber and company truly value, however, are Arendse’s contributions in the air and on defence.

Test rugby’s best midfield combination, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, would benefit from more game time together, given that Am missed much of the 2022 season because of injury. Faf de Klerk and the lightning-quick Grant Williams should continue to provide the Boks with multiple attacking options at No 9.

The pack selections are less straightforward. Lood de Jager was subbed after producing an uncharacteristically sluggish performance against the All Blacks. The coaches may persist with De Jager, though, given his status as the squad’s line-out kingpin.

Eben Etzebeth also needs game time, having only recently returned from a long injury layoff. The same applies to RG Snyman, who missed the 2021 and 2022 seasons because of serious injuries.

With Siya Kolisi on the sidelines, the Boks are on the hunt for an openside who can compete on the ground, carry in the wider channels and put in a big shift on defence. Marco van Staden was magnificent against Australia, but Kwagga Smith could get the nod on a more permanent basis because of his extensive range of skills.

Pieter-Steph du Toit has shown terrific progress over the past two weeks, and should be reinstated as the first-choice No 7. Veteran No 8 Duane Vermeulen, whose grit and leadership played a big role in South Africa’s second-half fightback against the All Blacks, may also pip Jasper Wiese for a starting chance.

Balancing the heavies

Do the Boks persist with the same starting front row for the third consecutive game, or do they bring a senior player in from the cold? Trevor Nyakane, who was arguably the best tighthead in the world in 2021, hasn’t been used in this year’s campaign and could benefit from a run ahead of the World Cup.

Boks in preparation

Trevor Nyakane in action against Wales in Bloemfontein in 2022. (Photo: Charle Lombard/Gallo Images)

Snyman will be a key player from the bench, and Franco Mostert may revert to an impact player role. Wiese is another who needs game time in a green-and-gold jersey.

There may be more opportunity to experiment and rotate in the coming weeks, when the Boks travel to Argentina for a friendly, and in two World Cup warm-ups against Wales and New Zealand.

In the fixture against Argentina in Johannesburg, however, the first-choice side must be given the opportunity to settle and build with a view to the global tournament. DM

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Agree for the most part, but I think Andre Esterhuizen must be ahead of de Allende for the 12 jersey right now. In hindsight, our performance in Auckland last week saw us start with a few players still rusty – can’t do that against the Kiwis. I’m still quietly confident for the World Cup.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Kiwis fronted up in the set pieces, and then used the inner channels instead of going wide. That, coupled with a own kick retention rate 10x better than the Boks did us in. We won’t talk about having a specialist kicker on the field. I bet they are not wanting to toss old Fossie away too quickly now. Master class All Black performance. Having said all that, it was still 4 tries to 3, and could easily have been 4 each..

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “And yet, Rassie Erasmus and Nienaber won’t be overly concerned. Over the past six years they have developed a reputation for their big-picture thinking.”

    Absolutely. These ‘Championship’ games have been a farce for a long time, particularly in RWC years like this. For me the ONLY judge of how a good a team is is when they have an extended time in one country – and particularly one time zone – to show how good they are. As the Boks have done now three times. The ABs have only done it twice – I don’t consider their 2011 ‘win’ as valid thanks to the disgraceful reffing by Bryce Lawrence in their game against the Aussies, particularly as a New Zealander should ever have been in charge(sic) of a game between two potential opponents of his country’s team.

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