Marx, Etzebeth injuries may force tactical rethink ahead of Ireland showdown
Losing hooker Malcolm Marx for the remainder of RWC 2023 while still sweating over the fitness of Eben Etzebeth might force the Bok coaches into a new approach.
Earlier this year, Daily Maverick chatted to the Springboks’ lineout kingpin Lood de Jager. At that stage, De Jager was based in Japan, but was already starting to prepare for the Test season and the all-important World Cup.
Towards the end of a wide-ranging interview, the 2019 World Cup winner spoke about the team’s progress on the tour to Europe in 2022, and the narrow defeats to Ireland and France. De Jager insisted that South Africa had learned a lot from those losses and that the set-piece lessons in particular would echo through to the 2023 World Cup.
“Last year, we saw how some teams went out of their way to stop our maul, just as we go out of our way to negate their strengths,” he said. “We were surprised by how they stopped that momentum, but we will be better prepared when we meet those teams in 2023.”
It’s worth revisiting those comments ahead of the Pool B showdown between the Boks and Ireland on 23 September. The Boks have certainly progressed over the past 12 months — winning eight of their last nine Tests, with the match against Romania on Sunday to come. Ireland are favourites to beat Tonga this weekend and to extend their own winning streak to 15 matches.
Injuries to South Africa’s key game-drivers, however, may compromise their push for victory in Paris — or at the very least force a tactical rethink.
De Jager himself was ruled out of the World Cup on the eve of the tournament, as were two other first-choice players in flyhalf Handré Pollard and centre Lukhanyo Am. Since arriving at the competition in France, two other frontline warriors in Malcolm Marx and Eben Etzebeth have been sidelined with serious injuries.
On Thursday, the Boks confirmed that Marx had sustained a knee injury in training and will play no further part at the World Cup. Etzebeth is nursing a shoulder ailment sustained in the recent win against Scotland and is unlikely to be back for the third pool match against Ireland.
Marx injury a blow to forward dynamic
While their selections for the Romania game have caused a stir — four scrumhalves were included in the 23, with the electric Grant Williams backed to start on the wing — the biggest news to come out of the camp is that the Boks have lost Marx, one of their most influential players.
Marx has shared the starting responsibilities with Bongi Mbonambi over the past eight Tests. Apart from his game-shaping contributions at the breakdown, the versatile hooker has formed part of a brutally effective scrumming combination including Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe in the big wins against Wales, New Zealand and Scotland.
Mbonambi has played an equally important role from the bench alongside Ox Nché and Trevor Nyakane — three players of shorter stature who deliver an explosive collective punch. Those three players compliment one another, and the combination certainly complements the starting trio in the overall South African game plan.
It’s plain to see how the loss of Marx or any of the aforementioned front-row players may impact the dynamic of the pack, and the team itself. At the very least, Marx’s injury will force a reshuffle in the starting lineup and on the bench — and prompt a rethink of which player or combination should start against Ireland.
Kitshoff, Marx and Malherbe were backed to start in Dublin last November. With Marx heading back to South Africa, the Bok coaches may have to push Nché, Mbonambi and Nyakane to start against Ireland in Paris — whereas initially, they may have preferred to deploy that combo from the bench.
Until the Boks call up a replacement, Deon Fourie will serve as the second-choice hooker. Fourie was always going to play this role against Romania, but may well have to pack down in the front row against Ireland, too. While he began his career at hooker, he has been utilised primarily as a flanker at club and Test level in recent years. The game against Romania will mark his first international appearance in the front row.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup News Hub
Second-string lock duo to battle Ireland
De Jager is recognised by those in the know as one of the finest lineout exponents in the game. The Boks have continued to perform in this area since he was ruled out — with Franco Mostert excelling in the No 5 jersey — and that speaks volumes for the team’s quality in depth.
And yet, the omission of Etzebeth as well as De Jager will disrupt Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber’s best-laid plans.
Etzebeth was forced to leave the field in the 27th minute of the recent game against Scotland, and the Boks missed his presence at the front of the lineout and at the maul. That is not a criticism of his replacement, RG Snyman — a world-class athlete in his own right — but rather a nod to Etzebeth’s experience and leadership.
Snyman has lived up to the hype this season following a long-awaited return from serious injury. His speed and ability to offload in contact has been particularly valuable towards the end of a contest — once the opposition has tired and the game has opened up.
Can Snyman fulfil Etzebeth’s role — at the lineout, the maul and on the kick-chase — against Ireland? And will his promotion to the starting lineup dilute the potency of the bench?
The Bomb Squad strategy worked a treat in the World Cup warm-ups, particularly when a certain front-row combination and the second-row duo of Snyman and Jean Kleyn were deployed. With regards to the latter, can Marvin Orie and Kleyn offer the same impact? Given the recent setbacks, is the six-two split still viable? These are the questions the Bok coaches will wrestle with as they prepare for the most important game of the World Cup pool phase.
Managing resources with future in mind
Injuries are part of the game, and the Bok coaches may have anticipated such setbacks when planning this campaign. While some have criticised their selections for the Romania fixture, those picks speak to the need to box clever over the course of a gruelling eight-week tournament.
Frontline players such as Siya Kolisi, Malherbe, Mostert, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Manie Libbok, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse have all been rested for the clash against Romania. The coaches may be reluctant to risk these players — as well as Etzebeth — just six days before such an important match against Ireland. Furthermore, they may be looking to manage the workloads of these ahead of the most demanding phase of the tournament. A taxing playoff against either France or New Zealand will be followed by a potential semi-final and final.
The Boks’ depth has been rightly lauded over the course of the 2023 season. Three weeks ago, they claimed a record win against New Zealand at Twickenham, despite the absence of a clutch of first-choice players.
Their depth will face the greatest test yet, however, when they battle Ireland in Paris, without two key men in Etzebeth and Marx. DM