Boks go with four scrumhalves against Romania, but concerns grow over Marx injury
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber made expected sweeping changes to his side to face Romania, but an undisclosed injury to star hooker Malcolm Marx is the major concern for the team.
When four scrumhalves were named in the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup 2023 squad six weeks ago, it led to furrowed brows and widespread head-scratching.
The reasoning behind coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ decision became less opaque when all four were named in the side to take on Romania in the Boks’ second-round Pool B clash in Bordeaux on Sunday.
The lightning-quick Grant Williams will start on the wing and Cobus Reinach will wear the No 9 jersey. Jaden Hendrikse and Faf de Klerk are on the bench in a five/three split between forwards and backs.
That means De Klerk is the flyhalf cover with Manie Libbok rested and Damian Willemse starting at 10. Hendrikse will cover scrumhalf while starting fullback Willie le Roux, who spent his formative pro years as a flyhalf, could also slot in at out-half if needed.
“People were surprised when we picked four scrumhalves in the squad but we knew they offered us the skills and versatility to provide backline options to manage the challenges that tournament rugby gives you,” Nienaber said.
“They are all excellent scrumhalves, but Grant and Cobus can play wing and Faf has experience at No 10 — as do Cheslin and Willie. We have the same versatility among our forwards.
“Grant played school rugby on the wing, and he has come on at wing before for us, so we are excited to give him this opportunity to start there and for him to gain international experience in the position.
“Faf is also one of our backup flyhalves in the squad, and the same applies to him, as it will be valuable for him and the team to get some game time in the position.
“We have been rotating and testing players in different positions since last season to put us in the fortunate position to have a group of 33 players in France that are closely matched in terms of their quality of play and skills, and who have been pushing one another for places in the last few months. It has allowed us to select a top-quality team for this match.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
Smoke and mirrors
Given the gulf in class between South Africa and Romania, these selections will probably have very little impact on the result, but it does reveal the extent of smoke and mirrors in the Bok set-up.
While it might be clear to the players in the inner sanctum, the Bok management is adept at deception to those looking from the outside.
Four scrumhalves in a World Cup squad is unheard of and it’s unlikely that such a luxury was considered “just” for the Romania game. If the absent Handré Pollard were really as close to match fitness as the Bok management has hinted in recent weeks, they would’ve selected him from the outset.
In further muddied waters, hooker Malcolm Marx pulled up lame at training on Wednesday and is awaiting further assessments.
The ubiquitous cover-all of “going for scans” was the only news on his condition, while Nienaber claimed to know very little about the situation and said he wasn’t sure if he could give out medical information — which was bizarre in itself.
“Malcolm wasn’t selected for this match, so that doesn’t change anything in terms of the selection of this particular game,” Nienaber said.
“I’m not 100% sure, but I don’t think we’re allowed to give out medical information about a player.
“It’ll be better to talk to him [which is, of course, impossible for the media], or he gives the doctor the green light, who is probably in a better space to talk and will know more than I do.”
The bottom line is that it sounds serious and the sight of flank Marco van Staden throwing in during lineout practice, is reason to set the alarm bells ringing.
Losing Marx would be a massive blow for the squad and for the Boks’ chances. He is probably the one player, outside of Libbok as the only fit and recognised flyhalf in the squad, the Boks cannot afford to lose.
Deon Fourie, who turns 37 soon, is set for his RWC debut as reserve hooker with Bongi Mbonambi starting and also captaining the side.
There is nothing wrong with those two, but the Boks are now down to two fit hookers in the squad with the crunch game against Ireland on 23 September looming. Marx’s health will become the most-talked about issue at RWC 2023 in the next 24 hours.
Willemse is the only survivor from the starting XV that did duty during Sunday’s 18-3 win over Scotland to start the campaign. He was fullback in round one.
The 14 other personnel changes in the starting team, see Canan Moodie (centre) and Jean Kleyn (lock) return after not being available for selection because of injury in game one. Moodie resumes his Twickenham midfield partnership with the hard-running Andre Esterhuizen, while Kleyn partners Marvin Orie in the engine room.
The experienced Willie le Roux jumps from the bench to the starting lineup at fullback, while Makazole Mapimpi will accompany Williams on the wing.
Nienaber also named a quality forward pack with Ox Nche, Vincent Koch (both props) and Mbonambi (hooker) joining forces in the front row, and Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith (both flankers) and Duane Vermeulen (No 8) forming a new loose trio.
Deon Fourie will serve as the backup hooker on the bench, alongside a quality set of forwards in Steven Kitshoff, Trevor Nyakane (both props), RG Snyman (lock) and Jasper Wiese (No 8), while Jesse Kriel (centre) is the third back.
Nienaber said: “This squad includes several Rugby World Cup winners and some of the best young talent in the country and we are excited to see what they can do. Player management is vital as every game in the World Cup is essentially a play-off game, and it is important that our squad remains sharp and match-fit throughout the competition.”
Nienaber expected their opponents to show real fight at Stade de Bordeaux: “Romania are a patriotic team and they will be playing for their country. It is a massive opportunity for them to play against us because such occasions are very rare, so they will give everything.
“They scored the first try in their opening match against Ireland, they showed real skill in a number of areas of their game and they fought throughout the match, so we know what we are in for.
“Obviously, from our perspective, it is important to build momentum in our campaign and this match plays a vital role in our plans for the tournament, so it is important that we follow through with our plan in this match.” DM
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Grant Williams, 13 Canan Moodie, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Kwagga Smit, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bongi Mbonambi (captain), 1 Ox Nche
Reserves: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Jasper Wiese, 21 Jaden Hendrikse, 22 Faf de Klerk, 23 Jesse Kriel