Springboks’ hopes for World Cup quarterfinal hinge mostly on flyhalf selection
The Springbok team selection to face France in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarterfinal in Saint-Denis is impossibly difficult thanks to great planning.
Springbok team announcements are seldom met with universal approval. There will always be fans who feel that Player A should have been selected ahead of Player B. In the wake of a defeat, the omission of Player A will inevitably be cited as the primary reason for the loss.
Now, imagine those reactions playing out on a much bigger scale.
On Friday morning, the Boks will unveil their matchday 23 for the Rugby World Cup (RWC) quarterfinal showdown with France on Sunday. No matter who the coaches select – at No 8, flyhalf, outside centre, fullback, and on the bench – several world-class players will miss the cut.
The biggest potential casualties in this scenario are Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, who have, in a sense, become victims of their own excellent planning.
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Having worked with more than 100 players over the past six years, and having rotated their squad heavily in recent months, they’re suddenly sitting with a problem of fitting 33 excellent players into a matchday squad of 23.
Unsurprisingly, they have delayed their team announcement until Friday morning – breaking with the convention of naming their side at the start of the week.
With the team’s future at this tournament on the line – as well as their quest to claim back-to-back titles – they have to ensure that they get these selections right.
Goal-kicking strategy will influence selections
The Bok forwards laid the platform for World Cup title successes in 1995, 2007 and 2019, and the collective determination on defence went a long way towards winning those tournaments. The same could be said for the series victories against the British & Irish Lions in 2009 and 2021.
However, in every one of those big matches, accurate kicking at the crucial juncture shaped the outcome.
The Boks would not have won the 1995 World Cup if Joel Stransky had missed a late drop-goal attempt in the final. They might have lost the 2009 series as well as the 2021 edition if Morné Steyn had been less than flawless from the kicking tee.
Goal-kicking shouldn’t be an afterthought. One way or another, the coaches have to select their best kicker for what should be a tight contest against France on Sunday.
But the situation is far from clear cut in light of Handré Pollard’s late return to the squad.
Until recently, the Boks’ first-choice flyhalf hadn’t played Test rugby in more than a year. Following a late call-up to the World Cup squad, Pollard played 50 minutes against Tonga, before making way for Manie Libbok.
Pollard slotted four conversions in that final pool fixture, while Libbok rose to the occasion to nail all three of his attempts from the tee. Despite those encouraging performances, there are still a couple of nagging questions surrounding both players.
Pollard looked good against Tonga, but at this early stage of his return to play, can he be expected to last 80 minutes against France in what could be one of the most physically taxing games of the tournament?
In the playoffs, there is also the scenario of extra time to consider. Would Pollard last 100 minutes in a clash of this nature?
Libbok should have key role to play
Libbok has the skills to be a World Cup-winning flyhalf.
He showcased his attacking and goal-kicking ability across a successful 2022 United Rugby Championship campaign with the Stormers, slotting a couple of crucial kicks in the playoffs of that tournament.
Unlike Pollard, Libbok doesn’t have the experience of winning World Cups and Lions series. The Stormers player has brought a lot to the Bok attack since making his Test debut last November, but has been inconsistent in front of goal.
How do the Bok coaches tackle this problem ahead of the World Cup playoffs? Do they start Pollard or Libbok?
There are several options – but no perfect solution.
The Boks could start Pollard and include Libbok on the bench. That may allow them to build early scoreboard pressure, should their best goal-kicker receive opportunities in front of goal.
Later in the match, Libbok could be unleashed – and this option will be useful if the Boks have to chase the game and switch to a more attacking approach.
The problem with the start-Pollard-bench-Libbok strategy is related to Pollard’s fitness. If Pollard doesn’t last the full 80 minutes, then it would fall to Libbok to take any goal-kicks and steer the Boks into the semifinals.
The Boks will want their best and most experienced goal-kicker – Pollard averaged 88% from the tee in 2022 prior to injury – on the field if the game is in the balance at the death. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the coaches backing Libbok to start.
Bomb Squad make-up
Over the course of 10 Tests played in 2023, the Bok coaches have varied their selection tactics on the bench, using the 5-3 split four times, the 6-2 four times and the 7-1 twice.
The make-up of the bench for the World Cup quarterfinal may be largely influenced by the backs rather than the forwards, and ultimately the selections at No 10 and 13.
Pollard and Lukhanyo Am haven’t played a lot of rugby since returning from their respective injuries, and aren’t expected to go the distance in an 80-minute – or possibly 100-minute – battle royal.
If one or both players are included in the starting lineup for the World Cup quarterfinal, the Boks will need adequate cover on the bench, and ultimately a 5-3 split between forwards and backs.
Will this detract from the Boks’ plans to win the set pieces and collisions? This will be a big point of debate.
It’s worth noting that the Boks favoured a 5-3 split on the bench when they tackled France in Marseille last November. Despite losing Pieter-Steph du Toit to an early red card, the forwards produced a magnificent performance and South Africa nearly won the match.
Fullback also a crucial call
If the Boks persist with the 5-3 against France this Sunday, it will be interesting to see which of the backline players make the cut.
Pollard and Libbok will be needed, regardless of whether they start or sit on the bench. If Am starts, then Jesse Kriel will be needed as cover, as Am may not last for the entirety of the contest.
This would lead to a scenario where Damian Willemse or Willie le Roux misses out on selection completely.
Willemse has already started at fullback against Scotland and Ireland at this World Cup, which would suggest he is the favourite to wear the No 15 jersey against France. However, as the Bok players will tell you, Le Roux has no peer when it comes to organising the backline and deploying teammates to specific roles on attack and defence over the course of a game.
Willemse or Le Roux could watch the game from the stands. Alternatively, Kriel will be backed wholeheartedly in that No 13 role, and Am – arguably South Africa’s most gifted player – will miss the cut completely.
Erasmus and Nienaber face some impossibly difficult selections, and whatever they decide, there is going to be a backlash.
Many will criticise the coaches if these selections backfire in the most important match of the four-year cycle.
What this situation does highlight, however, is how far South Africa has come in terms of its squad development.
Whether the Boks win or lose this Sunday, there’s no denying that they are streets ahead of other nations in this department. DM