Revamped ‘Bomb Squad’ selections will keep Ireland guessing — and that’s the point
The Springboks’ Pool B clash against Ireland — who are ranked first in the world — looks set to be a game of chess. One which may be decided by a combination of wit and a sprinkle of luck.
The Springboks’ brains trust, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, have made a statement with their recent selections – and that message appears to be aimed at Irish boss Andy Farrell and his army of analysts ahead of the Pool B showdown in Paris on Saturday night.
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On Monday, Erasmus was put up for media duty and went on to reveal that the Boks would favour a seven-one split on their bench – a risky selection policy that paid off in the recent 35-7 win against the All Blacks at Twickenham.
At the time, it felt like Erasmus was engaging in a game of silly buggers.
It’s not uncommon for coaches to lay a trap for their opponents via a comment in the media. Was Erasmus seriously contemplating this strategy, or was his statement another ruse?
Tuesday evening arrived, and so did the answer, as the Bok team to play Ireland was announced. As per Erasmus’ earlier statement, the bench included seven forwards and just one back.
Hidden statement behind the statement
There are other aspects of the team announcement and indeed the unconventional squad make-up to explore. There are plenty of questions and what-if scenarios, and perhaps that is the point.
With 15 forwards in a matchday squad of 23, the Boks appear to be laying down the gauntlet. Ireland may be the No 1 side in the world, and they may have won 19-16 when these teams met in Dublin last year – but do they have the forward power to combat what is effectively two monster South African packs over 80 minutes?
Some may dismiss a supposedly rhetorical question as South African arrogance. But Farrell may have reason to pause when running his eyes down the Bok team sheet.
What are Erasmus and Nienaber trying to say with these selections? Surely it can’t be another case of, “We’re coming at you through the forwards, just try to stop us.”
While that may be something of a South African rugby mantra, Erasmus and Nienaber have out-thought and out-manoeuvred other coaches before. Just ask the England coaching team that underestimated the Boks in the 2019 World Cup final.
Twickenham set the precedent
The Boks never set out to employ a seven-one split against the All Blacks at Twickenham. An injury to Willie le Roux on the eve of the game prompted a late change to the bench, with former sevens specialist Kwagga Smith replacing the fullback.
South Africa’s opponents would have analysed that game at length ahead of the World Cup in France. The Boks blew the All Blacks away in the first half. And while their subs did have an impact, there was little in the second-half performance to suggest that the seven-one split should be favoured ahead of the six-two in future – or essentially that the reward was worth the risk of including only one back on the bench.
Forget the seven-one split for a second. The six-two has long been considered a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
It paid off handsomely in the latter stages of the 2019 World Cup. Once the starting tight-five emptied the tank, an alternate front- and second-row combination was deployed from the bench. Japan, Wales and England had no response.
Erasmus and Nienaber have continued to experiment with their bench in ensuing years, and it’s only recently – since the return of RG Snyman and the recruitment of Jean Kleyn – that the coaches have revisited the policy of including another tight-five unit on the bench.
The Boks have employed a six-two split in four of the eight Tests played this season, plus the seven-one bench they used against New Zealand in London. They won four of those five games.
It’s interesting to note that they have only selected two locks in their Bomb Squad on one occasion thus far – and that was against the All Blacks last month.
Some might suggest that they have selected four locks in the matchday squad this week to provide cover for Eben Etzebeth, who picked up a shoulder injury against Scotland. But by including Etzebeth and Franco Mostert in the starting side, and Snyman and Kleyn on the bench, they are well-placed to take the fight to Ireland’s pack from minute one to 80.
Breakdown threat less clear
Farrell would have expected that and will have a lot of intel on Snyman and Kleyn, who play for Irish side Munster. In terms of the breakdown battle, the threat appears less clear.
The Bok coaches have rotated their forwards across the first two World Cup games against Scotland and Romania. All these players, bar Vincent Koch (injured), have received a run. Some, such as Marco van Staden and Deon Fourie, have enjoyed game time at both hooker and flank.
When Fourie was selected ahead of the 2022 series against Wales, the coaches said that they would like the ageing star to play a utility role at the 2023 World Cup, similar to the one fulfilled by Schalk Brits in 2019.
However, as time passed, Fourie was used exclusively as a flanker. Even when he was included in the 33-man World Cup squad as cover for Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx, there were doubts about his aptitude for the front-row role, especially considering that he was yet to play hooker in a Test match.
Last Sunday, the coaches deployed Fourie in the hooker position for the very first time. Twenty minutes later, they moved Fourie to the flank and introduced Van Staden to the front row.
Perhaps the coaches were intent on giving both game time in a less demanding fixture against Romania. Perhaps they were reluctant to show Ireland the strengths of these players. Or indeed any weaknesses that can be exploited.
The Boks never planned to lose Marx, one of the best set-piece and breakdown exponents in the world. And yet, they will head into a back-row battle against Ireland with a host of ball-carrying, counter-rucking and contesting options.
How they intend to manage and deploy these combinations, of course, remains to be seen.
Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jasper Wiese will provide the necessary balance in a tighter, kick-oriented approach. In the second half, it’s possible that Fourie will replace Mbonambi and that Van Staden and Smith will come into the back row.
Would the coaches really send Van Staden on at hooker ahead of Fourie? Given how the pair was managed against Romania, you wouldn’t rule it out.
Midfield must remain intact
We’ve looked at the possible rewards of a seven-one and six-two split. There is a chance, however, that this selection backfires, with one or more backs breaking down with injuries and disrupting the established backline combinations.
The Boks used the six-two split in the first five Tests of the 2022 season. Following the devastating 35-23 loss to the All Blacks at Ellis Park, the coaches were forced to rethink the use of this strategy.
After losing Jesse Kriel (who started on the wing) to concussion in the early stages, they were forced to rearrange their backline. Fullback Damian Willemse moved to No 12, inside centre Damian de Allende moved to No 13, and outside centre Lukhanyo Am shifted to wing. Replacement Willie le Roux slotted in at the back.
Am had an outstanding game on the wing, but the All Blacks successfully targeted the makeshift midfield of Willemse and De Allende and ended up winning by 12 points.
Nienaber recently highlighted the versatility of the backline, but it’s fair to say that an untimely injury on Saturday will compromise their best-laid plans to dismantle the top-ranked side in the world.
The Boks dominated Ireland during the early stages of the battle in Dublin last November. The midfield combination of De Allende and Kriel – Am was recovering from a long-term injury at the time – rushed up in defence to catch the Irish ball carriers well behind the gainline.
Nienaber will be asking for more of the same this weekend. The forwards will be tasked with winning the set pieces and stifling Ireland’s trademark ruck speed. From there, De Allende and Kriel will have the chance to turn defence into attack – as they did in Dublin last November.
De Allende and Kriel have been playing together at this level since 2015, and have a healthy appreciation for one another’s strengths. While Am’s X-factor may be missed at this World Cup, Kriel has proved an excellent replacement in the department of defence.
This Saturday, a worst-case scenario will see Kriel leaving the field in the initial stages. The outside centre’s departure would prompt a disruptive backline reshuffle, with Willemse coming in at No 12 and De Allende moving out to 13.
The coaches will then have to decide whether to drop Manie Libbok to fullback – with Cobus Reinach coming off the bench to play scrumhalf, while regular No 9 Faf de Klerk moves to flyhalf.
Alternatively, they could leave Libbok at No 10 and move Cheslin Kolbe to fullback – where he started against Ireland last year. This may lead to Reinach or even Smith occupying the vacant wing slot.
These players have shown that they have the skills to play various positions. Reinach scored a hat-trick against Romania, while Smith is one of the quickest men in the team.
“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.”
But if the Boks suffer an early setback at the back, the likes of Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton may target Reinach or Smith with a series of contestable kicks. They will have noted the weakness of a Willemse and De Allende midfield combination and may seek to exploit it.
The what-if scenarios will be discussed at length by the Bok coaches, as well as the opposition.
Hours and hours of analysis will be done in the coming days as the respective teams prepare for the most important match of their pool campaign.
At a glance, it would appear as if the Bok coaches have taken an unnecessary gamble with their bench selections.
That risk aside, one gets the feeling that Erasmus and Nienaber have a few more cards to play. If their luck holds with regard to injury, they may indeed spring a surprise or two this Saturday. DM