Boks tweak the personnel for RWC 2023 opener but fundamentals remain the same

Boks tweak the personnel for RWC 2023 opener but fundamentals remain the same
Jesse Kriel dives over the line to score during ther Boks's Rugby World Cup 2023 warm-up match against Wales at Principality Stadium in Cardiff on 19 August 2023. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber showed his hand early and the squad he’s sending out to face Scotland is formidable even if there are some surprises.

When you can omit the likes of Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie, Andre Esterhuizen, Kwagga Smith and Jean Kleyn, who all starred in a record win over the All Blacks fewer than two weeks ago, and the general feeling still is that you’re putting out a really strong team, it indicates something is going right.

Bok coach Jacques Nienaber threw in a few surprises in his first team selection of Rugby World Cup 2023, but nothing about this team feels strange.

The squad to face Scotland in Marseille on 10 September is familiar and comforting. There are no shocks and it elicits nothing more than a lazily upturned eyebrow here and there.

Boks Nienaber

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber talks to the media at Grand Hotel des Sablettes Plage in Toulon, France, on 6 September 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)


Jasper Wiese over Duane Vermeulen at No 8? No problem. Wiese has started more than Vermeulen since 2022. Damian de Allende over Esterhuizen at inside centre? It was inevitable as De Allende has been the incumbent for five years.

Jesse Kriel at 13 instead of Moodie? Moot point. Moodie has a hamstring niggle and Lukhanyo Am is not at RWC 2023. Even if Moodie was fit though, Kriel would’ve started. He has 62 Test caps with 46 starts at 13 and is the defensive general in the backline. This is a must-win game and the Boks are playing the percentages here.

It all goes to highlight that the Boks have enviable depth in every position and that by picking one player over another, they are not better or worse. They’re probably just a bit ‘different’.

Damian Willemse over Willie le Roux at fullback? Interesting. Le Roux is South Africa’s attacking brain at second receiver while Willemse covers so many positions. But Willemse is perhaps a better defender and a more dangerous stepper. This is definitely a “horses for courses” selection to ask questions of the Scottish defence while also adding some defensive steel of its own.

Kurt-Lee Arendse over Mapimpi? Well, Arendse has been red hot all year and despite his relative lack of size, he is excellent under the high ball. And of course, he’s a nightmare for defenders on attack. Mapimpi would hardly weaken the side, but perhaps Arendse’s multidimensional gifts will pose more questions of a Scotland side looking to spread the game wide.


Duane Vermeulen during a Bok media conference in Toulon, France, on 5 September 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)


Jasper Wiese in action against Argentina at Kings Park in Durban on 24 September 2022. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images)

Marco van Staden on the bench instead of Smith? It’s really about upping the physicality. Smith is dynamic in contact and adds pace, but Van Staden brings a little more muscle.

It all goes to highlight that the Boks have enviable depth in every position and that by picking one player over another, they are not better or worse. They’re probably just a bit “different”.

“I don’t think an eyebrow would have been raised if Duane (Vermuelen) was starting and Jasper (Wiese) was on the bench and that was probably what we were working towards,” Nienaber said.



“That’s good in terms of creating a squad, and in terms of what we will need for Scotland that’s the best way to utilise them.

“Selection was very tough. When we were in Corsica we had a team selection every morning and it chopped and changed. There’s good competition across the board. We are in a fortunate position in terms of the squad we’ve developed over the last couple of years.

“When you look at a guy like Kwagga (Smith), he came in for Willie in the New Zealand game and he had a fantastic outing,” Nienaber said.

“I’d think he’s probably a little bit unlucky and had we gone with Kwagga, it wouldn’t have been a massive outcry. Some people would have asked about Marco as to why we didn’t pick him. In our opinion, they’re very close.

“For this specific game, what Marco gives us is more suited to the opponents.”

Psychological win

While this might appear slightly confusing from the outside – as if the Boks were waiting until the last moment to decide on combinations – nothing is further from the truth.

In the Rassie Erasmus/Nienaber era, communication has been key. This team, within its own confines, is an open book. Players are welcome to sit in selection meetings. Nothing is hidden and everything is carefully choreographed.

Lukhanyo Am is tackled by Santiago Carrera of Argentina during a Test at Jose Amalfitani Stadium in Buenos Aires on 5 August 2023. (Photo: Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images)

In “normal” Test weeks, the Boks tend to name their team on a Tuesday. Players have known for days already who is playing. It’s a psychological ploy, both internally and externally.

You must have the ability to score points whereas in 2019 you could grind it out with a good defence, a good kicking game, a solid set-piece.

Internally, it removes anxiety from players who aren’t left to guess if they’re in or out. And, externally it sends a massively confident image to opponents. “Here we are, this is who you’ll face and you know how we will play, so come and beat us.”

World Cup regulations are slightly different and the edict is that teams are asked to name only 48 hours before the match, mainly due to the throng of games in the opening two weeks.

The Boks asked for special permission to publicise their team sheet earlier, and it was granted. It’s another little psychological win for Nienaber.

“Naming our team early stops speculation. The players know anyway so it will probably come out in some sort of way,” Nienaber confirmed. “To be transparent with it has always been the way. By getting it out of the way we can just focus on preparing for Scotland.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Springboks name formidable squad for Rugby World Cup clash against Scotland

Nienaber also suggested that the team selection with the likes of Arendse and Willemse, who individually have the ability to step players one-on-one, is because the game has changed.

“All the teams have improved since 2019, but World Cups are a bit different,” Nienaber said.

“You must have the ability to score points whereas in 2019 you could grind it out with a good defence, a good kicking game, a solid set-piece. We had to adapt. I don’t think we’re the finished product yet, but we are working towards that.



“For us, rugby is always going to stay the same. You have to get possession to score points and for that you will need proper set-pieces, then you will need momentum when you attack.

“Then when you defend you must contain them, you must stop them. There’s the kicking game in between. Then, if you’re not getting momentum, you’re not getting quick ball, you exchange it for territory, kick the ball away and put pressure on them.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Bring it on! I’ve already said that I am feeling the most excited before any past RWC, mainly because the rugby is so much better these days, both the Boks and other teams. Our boys may not bring the cup home, but whoever beats them will have played some amazing rugby, and that’s probably the most important thing of all – the future of this fantastic game, which I believe Rassie particularly has had a major part in improving through his methods (and his Free State rugby background with a bit of Despatch too), seems to be very bright particularly now we’ve got rid of much of the English and New Zealand deadweights. I hope I’m right!!

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