Sport

RWC 2023

Depth of Boks’ planning revealed as Van Staden admits to months of preparing to play hooker

Depth of Boks’ planning revealed as Van Staden admits to months of preparing to play hooker
Marco van Staden applauds the fans after the Springboks' Rugby World Cup match against Scotland at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on 10 September 2023. (Photo: Craig Mercer / MB Media / Getty Images)

Flank Marco van Staden might be a left-field choice as a hooker, but he has been auditioning for the role for months behind closed doors.

The loss of experienced hooker Malcolm Marx for the remainder of Rugby World Cup 2023 was a monstrous blow to the Springboks, but they have already moved on and implemented one of their many considered contingencies.

As ever, it seems, the Springbok coaching staff have covered themselves for all possibilities and haven’t yet reached panic mode, unlike most South African fans did after the news of Marx’s misfortune was confirmed.

Over the past several years coach Jacques Nienaber and director Rassie Erasmus have plotted their journey through RWC 2023 like military generals planning an invasion. They have tried to consider every contingency and have a back-up plan for the back-up plan.

Marco van Staden’s slightly surprising inclusion in the 33-man RWC squad, heavy with looseforward talent, suddenly starts to make more sense. He was the fourth-choice hooker while also being the reserve flank.

Bok plan Marco van Staden

Marco van Staden acknowledges the crowd after the Springboks’ World Cup clash with Scotland at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on 10 September 2023. (Photo: Craig Mercer / MB Media / Getty Images)

RasNaber were again one step ahead, although their strategies are not without risk. They’ll have done a thorough risk/reward analysis of “project Van Staden” and it seems they’ve come to the conclusion they will roll the dice with him as a hooker – for now.

Preparing for the role

Which is why Nienaber hasn’t immediately called up specialist hooker Joseph Dweba. If Van Staden can do the job adequately, it might give the coach the luxury of recalling, say, flyhalf Handre Pollard instead.

Nienaber admitted they will be monitoring Pollard, who is set to play a club game for Leicester this weekend.

“We will definitely have a look at the Leicester game, and I think Handre’s in the mix,” Nienaber said.

“There’s a 48-hour period before you can replace somebody so there’s some administrative stuff which I know nothing about.

“Our team is settled, and we have a back-up third choice (hooker) if something were to happen with those two hookers and we have a Marco who can stand in for now.

“We’ll probably make a decision over the weekend after the game in terms of who we’ll bring in because, if you’re not 100% on top of your game and we start thinking of who we’ll bring in as a replacement and instead of fully focusing on Romania, it could become a slippery game.”

What is clear is that Van Staden has been training for this moment. Mentally and physically he has slowly been preparing himself for playing in the front row. Outwardly, he is unfazed by the prospect, which might not come at all.

Van Staden revealed on Friday that he has spent considerable time in training honing his skills as a hooker. He is now the third-choice hooker in the squad, behind established Bongi Mbonambi, and the versatile Deon Fourie.

Van Staden, like Fourie, is primarily a flank, who can play hooker. Unlike Fourie though, Van Staden has not been in the front row as a senior professional in a match situation.

“I started practising for hooker in the alignment camps (which happened periodically from February) as a back-up in case of injury or any red cards,” Van Staden said.

“I’m very comfortable and if the opportunity is there and I have to play in the front row, I’m ready and looking forward to doing it.

Bok plan

Marco van Staden in action against Argentina at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Gqeberha on 14 August 2021. (Photo: Christiaan Kotze / Gallo Images)

“I played hooker in my junior years. I actually came to the Bulls (on contract) as a hooker and only moved to flank a little later. It will be a little different in a game situation, especially at the World Cup, but coach Daan (Human) and the other hookers in the squad have helped me a lot to make the adjustment as easy as possible.”

Van Staden was also confident that he would handle scrumming. A reporter asked if his neck could handle the different technique and strain he would be under – which prompted lock Jean Kleyn, sitting next to Van Staden, to ask rhetorically: “Have you seen the size of his neck?”

The Bulls man does have an impressive set of shoulders and nape, and shouldn’t be out of place in the front row in terms of sheer physicality.

“My neck has always been strong, but yes, it’s not the same as scrumming at flank,” Van Staden conceded. “The training I’ve done has helped me condition myself for the role and at this stage I feel comfortable there.”

Marco van Staden in training with the Boks at The Lensbury in Teddington, England, on 22 November 2022. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Marco van Staden at a Bok training session at Cardiff Metropolitan University on 14 August 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

Testing times

Despite Van Staden’s confidence, losing Marx to a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) was a hammer blow to the squad. He is simply a colossal player who is brilliant in his primary tasks and even better in giving the Boks momentum in the loose.

Read more in Daily Maverick: All our Rugby World Cup coverage

Marx has averaged 1.5 jackal turnovers per game over three years – which is better than any openside flank – while his shuddering defence and bone-breaking ability to carry over the gainline is hard to match.

But World Cups are only ever won by a collective effort and being able to adapt to challenges, which inevitably come up.

 

 

In that regard the Boks have had a fair bit to overcome and so far they have been able to meet every challenge. But their margin for error is diminishing and even a squad as deep and with as much quality as they have, will start hurting.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Who will win the Rugby World Cup? A well-tested algorithm has it pegged

Losing Loode de Jager, Lukhanyo Am and Pollard before the tournament, and now Marx, and possibly Eben Etzebeth (for the Ireland match next week), is posing tough questions.

How many genuine World Cup contenders could sustain the loss of five huge players – essentially the spine of the 2019 World Cup-winning team – and still be bullish about their chances?

The Springboks are not in an ideal situation, but they have lived by the mantra, “fail to prepare, and prepare to fail”. No one could ask for more. DM

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