Boks make a huge statement of intent as they go 7/1 against Ireland
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber named seven forwards and only one back on his bench for Saturday’s crunch Rugby World Cup 2023 Pool B clash in Paris.
As statements of intent go, Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber might as well have WhatsApp-ed Ireland coach Andy Farrell and challenged him to a fight in the car park.
Nienaber’s decision to flood his bench with seven forwards and only one back as cover is like West Indian great Viv Richards going to the coin toss against England in shorts and flip-flops and coming out to bat in a cap. Richards was saying: “You don’t intimidate me, I intimidate you.” Nienaber’s Boks are sending the same message with a powerful Bomb Squad.
This has never been done before. Well, it has, but that was by the Boks a month ago, and it was a late decision when Willie le Roux was injured in the warm-up before they met the All Blacks at Twickenham. The Boks won that match 35-7.
This is the first time an international team, three days out from a Test, has taken such an extreme position. And bloody hell, it’s fun.
The Boks’ 18-3 victory over Scotland and their 76-0 thrashing of Romania in their opening two matches at RWC 2023 means they have a virtual free hit against Ireland to try this. If the experiment fails and they lose, they should still progress to the quarterfinals with a five-point haul against Tonga in their final pool match.
If they beat Ireland with 15 forwards and eight backs, they might seriously damage Irish minds and send warning shots to future opponents. It’s not supposed to be like this, which is why it’s so enjoyable.
It probably verges on cocky, but it is also a calculated gamble. The Boks are playing to their strengths with acceptable risk.
Of course, this plan could backfire horribly with some early backline injuries or red cards, but at least it isn’t boring. Because flank Kwagga Smith, a former Blitzbok, is so mobile, the Boks are able to gamble with this ploy.
And by going this route, Nienaber has loaded the bench with breakdown specialists. Deon Fourie, the reserve hooker, is actually an openside flank. Marco van Staden, the third-choice hooker, is also an openside flank. And Smith, the emergency backline cover, is an openside flank. There is a trend here.
Throw in the skills of Siya Kolisi, Jasper Wiese and Steven Kitshoff over the ball, and Ireland’s technical department could be rethinking their plans for this game. Pace and movement might be a way to combat the Bok power and breakdown aggression, but no guarantee.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
Given the versatility of the backline as well, this approach just about works.
Damian Willemse, starting at fullback, can play flyhalf and inside centre. Wing Cheslin Kolbe can play flyhalf, as can scrumhalf Faf de Klerk.
Inside centre Damien de Allende can operate at outside centre, wing Kurt-Lee Arendse also plays fullback and reserve scrumhalf Cobus Reinach is comfortable at wing. Versatility might be this team’s greatest strength.
Reinach was exceptional against Romania. His three tries were well taken, but it was his line kicking that caught the eye and probably elevated him in the halfback pecking order.
The match also sees the return of Eben Etzebeth at lock after recovering from a shoulder injury while Jean Kleyn and RG Snyman are second-row reserves on the bench.
In all, there are 13 changes from the starting side that beat Romania as the clear distinction between the “A” and the “B” teams becomes clearer.
“Ireland are a quality team with a strong pack of forwards and talented backs, and they play with a lot of speed, so we know what we have to do to deliver a top-drawer performance for things to go our way,” Nienaber said.
“We faced them late last year and we’ve been keeping an eye on their performances this year, so everyone knows what we have to do this weekend.
“We’re fortunate to have a match-fit squad and have been building depth and versatility for a while and believe this is the best combination for this match. For many of these players, this is their second or third World Cup, so they know what it takes to perform at this level, and we believe this team has the right balance of players to achieve what we would like to achieve in this match.
“We know it’s going to be a grind of a match and we know we need to pitch up physically and mentally. We also need to start with intensity and stay focused until the final whistle.
“This is a massive game for both sides with an eye to progressing out of our pool, so we need to be extremely accurate in all areas of our game.”
Nienaber brushed off suggestions that his Irish links and those of SA Rugby’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, and assistant coach Felix Jones, as well as those of Kleyn and Snyman, both of whom currently ply their trade at Munster, gave either side a special advantage.
“The teams have been facing one another for years, and just as they know us, we know them,” he said. “At the end of the day, both teams have immense respect for one another, and while this aspect may be entertaining for the fans, the match will come down to who plays the most effective rugby on the day.”
Of the six-day turnaround for this match, Nienaber said: “We’ve known for a long time that we would have a shorter turnaround for this match, and we planned accordingly in terms of training and team selection for the last two games. The early kick-off against Romania also assisted as we had the whole night on Sunday to begin our recovery, so we are ready for what lies ahead.” DM
Springboks to play Ireland
15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff. Reserves: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Jean Kleyn, 20 RG Snyman, 21 Marco van Staden, 22 Kwagga Smith, 23 Cobus Reinach.