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TEST SWANSONG

Bok coach Nienaber’s last Rugby Championship involvement is a small, but significant footnote to Pumas clash

Bok coach Nienaber’s last Rugby Championship involvement is a small, but significant footnote to Pumas clash
Saturday's Rugby Championship Test at Ellis Park will be Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber's last in this competition. He will step down after RWC 2023 in France to take up a position at Irish club Leinster. (Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

The chances of winning the 2023 Rugby Championship for the Springboks and Pumas are slim but for home coach Jacques Nienaber it’s a farewell to this competition.

For a man with almost zero ego, Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber will spend no time dwelling on the fact that Saturday’s Rugby Championship Test against Argentina will be his last involvement in this competition.

It’s a tiny, but significant footnote to the clash at Ellis Park because a World Cup year distorts focus from everything but the big prize.

Nienaber has been involved with the Springboks, on and off, for more than a decade. The last four years have been as head coach as the journey to the end of his tenure can now be counted in weeks before he moves on to a new challenge with Leinster.

It’s unlikely now that his CV will include a Rugby Championship title as head coach (he was assistant when they won in 2019) even if the Boks beat Argentina at their Joburg fortress tomorrow. That’s because the All Blacks are likely to wrap up their 10th Rugby Championship and 20th overall (including the Tri-Nations) in Melbourne.

If New Zealand beats Australia in the earlier game on Saturday there is nothing the Boks can do to win the title. 

Nienaber and his team will be hoping for a Wallaby win but given the Australians’ current form, that is as likely as coach Eddie Jones never making a controversial remark again.

Argentina, too, still have an outside chance of winning the title if the Wallabies beat the All Blacks and they score a bonus point win over the Boks.

But the most plausible scenario is that the two sides will take to the Ellis Park field with the sole objective of winning a big Test after the All Blacks have wrapped up the title.

Controlling the environment

The Rugby Championship has never been the big prize in a World Cup year and for the Boks they can only control their own environment.

If the title is on the line when they kick-off at 17:05, great. If it’s not, nothing changes because the objectives of winning, underpinned by a strong performance while meeting their tactical and technical targets, won’t change.

The side picked to face the Pumas is packed with exciting attacking ability behind the scrum, a rock solid-looking pack that will provide a granite foundation and an explosive bench.

The highveld is not a happy place for the Pumas and it’s hard to see how they will leave OR Tambo on Sunday with a Bok scalp for the long flight back to Buenos Aires.

Malcolm Marx, Rugby Championship

Hooker Malcolm Marx starts for the Springboks against the Pumas at Ellis Park on Saturday. (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Full Marx

Two-thirds of the Boks’ starting front row are experienced card-carrying bomb squad members finally given a starting role. Loosehead Steven Kitshoff and hooker Malcolm Marx will relish an extended run while tighthead Frans Malherbe dons his familiar No 3 jersey.

Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus introduced the concept of ‘starters’ and ‘finishers’ instead of ‘reserves’, because rugby has become a 23-man game. But there is still a school of thought that 65 or 70 minutes of Kitshoff and Marx is better than only 25-30 minutes of the pair.

Of course, their roles are slightly different as starters and Marx’s effectiveness might not be as pronounced in the early skirmishes when everyone is fresh, but class is class. Would a football coach want 70 minutes of Lionel Messi or 20 minutes of Messi if he had a choice? 

Marx starting is perhaps a precursor to a change of strategy heading to the World Cup.

Happy halfbacks

Locks Eben Etzebeth and Marvin Orie complete the robust tight five while the back row of Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marco van Staden bring power, lineout prowess and breakdown menace to the contest.

And on the back of what is a dream of a pack, is finesse. Halfbacks Grant Williams and Manie Libbok could be in for a whale of a time if the forwards produce the expected dominance for them to shine.

Libbok has shown was an intelligent flyhalf he is. His ability to use a varied kicking game, willingness to attack pockets of space with ball in hand, or deploy a variety of passes to unlock defences, is impressive.

If he does that off the front foot, he is irresistible which is why the Pumas have to find a way to win the battle up front. They stand no chance if the Boks dominate there.

Scrumhalf Grant Williams, making his first Test start, is a natural ‘baller’ to use modern parlance. He loves to use his incredible athleticism to attack the fringes and test the defence on the edges.

Williams has also improved his basics of scrumhalf play with snappy service and an improved tactical kicking game, which is all made easier of the pack is winning the arm wrestle.

Wings Kurt-Lee Arendse, who has 10 tries in eight Tests, and Cheslin Kolbe, are obvious and lethal strike weapons. Inside centre Damian de Allende was a little rusty against the All Blacks two weeks ago but will be better for the hit out.

It’s an important game for De Allende with Andre Esterhuizen having done his World Cup prospects the world of good against the Wallabies at Loftus on 8 July.

Outside centre Jesse Kriel has never been universally loved, yet he never lets the team down. It’s hard being the guy that replaces Lukhanyo Am.

There is a lot to like about this Bok team.

Julian Montoya Argentina, Rugby Championship

Pumas captain Julian Montoya smiles following Argentina’s 34-31 win over the Wallabies in a Rugby Championship clash at CommBank Stadium on 15 July, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

Cheika rings changes

Argentina will have a new look backline with the return of Santiago Chocobares at centre as coach Michael Cheika makes five changes.

Cheika had been expected to largely keep the same team that beat the Wallabies 34-31 in Sydney, but has opted to give several other players a run as he looks at his World Cup options.

Juan Cruz Mallia takes over at fullback from Emiliano Boffelli, who is also the regular goal-kicker, meaning those duties will likely fall to flyhalf Santiago Carreras.

Mateo Carreras switches wings to replace Rodrigo Isgro on the right side, while Juan Imhoff comes in on the left to make up the back three.

There is also a change at inside centre where Chocobares replaces Jeronimo de la Fuente for his first test since 2021, and Lautaro Bazan Velez comes in at scrumhalf for Gonzalo Bertranou.

The forward pack is largely the same, with the only change a first test start for Lucas Paulos in the place of the injured Matias Alemanno.

The front row of props Francisco Gomez Kodela and Thomas Gallo will be either side of captain Julian Montoya, while Tomas Lavanini partners Paulos at lock.

Juan Martin Gonzalez is at number eight and makes up the back row with loose-forwards Santiago Grondona and Pablo Matera. DM

Teams:

South Africa 

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Grant Williams, 8 Duane Vermeulen (captain), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff.

Reserves: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Kwagga Smith, 20 RG Snyman, 21 Faf de Klerk , 22 Lukhanyo Am, 23 Damian Willemse 

 

Argentina

15 Juan Cruz Mallia, 14 Mateo Carreras, 13 Lucio Cinti, 12 Santiago Chocobares, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Santiago Carreras, 9 Lautaro Bazan Velez, 8 Juan Martin Gonzalez, 7 Santiago Grondona, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Lucas Paulos, 3 Francisco Gomez Kodela, 2 Julian Montoya (captain), 1 Thomas Gallo.

Reserves: 16 Ignacio Ruiz, 17 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 18 Joel Sclavi, 19 Pedro Rubiolo, 20 Facundo Isa, 21 Gonzalo Bertranou, 22 Tomas Albornoz, 23 Matias Moroni.

Kick-off: 17:05

Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Thank heaven this is the last episode of a pretty ridiculous tournament, especially in an RWC year when it really is no more than a very expensive and meaningless set of practice games.

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