Nienaber and Kolisi confident Boks can win Rugby World Cup despite Ireland setback in Paris
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and captain Siya Kolisi remained confident that the Boks could still win Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023 after Saturday’s 13-8 Pool B loss to Ireland.
The Springboks have used up all their lives now. They are into knockout mode after losing in a brilliant and brutal contest against Ireland at a heaving Stade de France on Saturday.
But they remain alive and just about have their destiny under control if they secure a bonus point win over Tonga in their final pool match. That is the good news.
The bad news is that they wasted chances against Ireland and the same old problems in the red zone cropped up. Lack of finishing, be it off the kicking tee where four shots at goal were missed, or failing to convert pressure inside Ireland’s 22-metre area into points.
Of course, analysis will reveal these mistakes as if they happened in a vacuum. But they did not. Both sides made errors because the intensity of the contest, the quality of play for the most part and the incredible courage from both sets of players to commit their bodies to pain, cannot be overstated.
It was by some distance the match of the tournament, and it wouldn’t be a complete stretch to say it was one of the greatest Tests of all time. This is what top-level Test rugby should look like.
The intensity of both defences, the speed with which players got off the deck and back into line to defend again, can only be believed if seen live.
It was not error-free rugby, of course, because the claustrophobia of two great defensive units closing down space and time in split seconds tested heads as much as hearts. This was rugby at its best. Not perfect, but brilliant.
There was perfection in the imperfection.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Boks face low road after Ireland win a thriller in Paris to underline favourites status
Asked if the Boks could still win the tournament, Nienaber laughed incredulously. It was an understandable reaction considering they’d just lost by the slimmest of margins against the No 1 ranked team in the world who just extended their winning sequence to 16 Tests in a row.
Despite missing a possible 11 points off the tee, the Boks had a chance to win the game with a lineout and rolling maul with the last play. Ireland somehow stopped it, perhaps illegally, perhaps not. The reality was the Boks didn’t get the ball down and that was that. It again highlighted the miniscule margins that defined the match.
“In 2019, did you think we could win?” Nienaber responded spikily, referencing how the Boks had lost to the All Blacks in Pool play but won the title.
“We are in this competition to win, everyone is here to win. We played against the number one team in the world and we lost by five points. We had a chance in the 79th minute to win but we didn’t take it. The bottom line is Ireland were better, but the margin is very small.
“We must work at things that didn’t work and, if we can fix them and have a bit of luck, we can win the World Cup.”
Captain Siya Kolisi also smiled at the question.
“A lot of us were here in the last World Cup and we know that the quicker you get over it, the better it is for the group,” Kolisi said. “So, that’s what we’re going to do.
“We were always prepared for this scenario. We knew this pool was going to be tough, but we’ve been in the same position before so we’re not going to shy away from it. We lost a game, but we can’t be down for too long because it is not going to help.
“The game was played with massive intensity and physicality, and for a couple of our players, like Manie Libbok and Kurt-Lee Arendse, this will have been the most pressured game they have ever played in.
“They will get better for it, because they will get used to the pressure of playing games like this. It felt like a knock-out game, a semifinal, or final, so we got good preparation out of it, we just didn’t get the result.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
Naturally, the coach defended his kickers in public, but the reality is that the Boks have to score points from the tee. They simply cannot leave 11 points on the table in tight contests.
The debate now turns to whether Handré Pollard, with just 30 minutes of rugby in 16 weeks, should replace Manie Libbok. Pollard might be more solid from the tee, but he will be as rusty as an abandoned car on the beachfront in general play.
There is also a question of whether he brings the same attacking nous to the Boks’ general play. Libbok is certainly a better playmaker, underlined by his long, inch-perfect pass to Cheslin Kolbe for the Boks’ only try of the match on Saturday.
Another factor is that with only Tonga to come, before a possible quarterfinal, there is no time for Pollard to play himself into match fitness. So, the coaches might have to come up with a way of including both in the 23 to face Tonga in Marseille on 1 October.
“Yes, we missed a couple of points off the tee, but I won’t say that’s the reason solely for not getting over the line,” Nienaber said. “I know you guys [the media] will say that. But we had opportunities, especially in the first half. And again in the back end of the game. That maul at the end…
“In the first half alone, we lost two balls close to the tryline and had another two opportunities later on, so that’s four opportunities, plus those points off the tee. But I won’t say it is only goal-kicking.
“We’ll have to discuss [bringing Pollard in]. Lots of things go into team selection. We will get the medical status after 24-48 hours and then we will go through our team selection process as normal.”
Sexton supports Libbok
Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton, who was at his brilliant best at Stade de France, offered some kind words to Manie Libbok, who landed one from three off the tee.
Last year, the Boks lost 19-16 against Ireland in Dublin, with seven points off the tee missed between Damian Willemse and Cheslin Kolbe.
But Libbok, as the starting flyhalf and first choice kicker, has been under immense pressure in terms of goal-kicking and is obviously struggling. He’s landed just three kicks from eight attempts at RWC 2023.
“Manie did some amazing things, like setting up the try,” Sexton said.
“He’s a handful with the ball and he has an array of tricks, but every kicker goes through a stage in their career and I had a similar one in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
“It’s tough, but you get stronger off the back of that and, when you do come out of the other side, you indeed become a better kicker.
“I don’t think there’s a kicker in the world that hasn’t gone through that period. He’s an outstanding player and gives them a different dimension.” DM