Tough aerial battle faces Boks as England have to back their kicking strategy to upset the favourites
The Springboks start the semi-final of Rugby World Cup 2023 as overwhelming favourites and quite simply, it is theirs to lose.
While the Springboks go into tomorrow’s Rugby World Cup 2023 semi-final against England confident and significant favourites it’s unlikely it will manifest as complacency.
The fact that Jacques Nienaber has named an unchanged team from the one that beat France 29-28 in last weekend’s epic quarterfinal in Saint-Denis shows that best 23 to complete the job have emerged.
It’s only the second time in the Rassie Erasmus/Jacques Nienaber era that the Boks have fielded the same 23 in consecutive weeks.
Had they made changes to a team that won so heroically against significant odds last week, it could easily have been seen as cocky and arrogant – complacent even.
The fact that Nienaber has opted for continuity sends out a strong message to England and also underlines that the six-year plan to win RWC 2023 has reached its apex.
The years of tinkering and building depth, of trial and error and fine tuning to settle on a 23-man squad for the business end of this tournament have come to an end. The best 23 for the job and the tactical approach the Boks have chosen, have been identified.
“If you go back to the start of 2022 when we started building the squad for the World Cup, we rotated almost every week and that is very tough on the squad,” Nienaber admitted.
“We all know that if you have continued selection your chances of performance are better because they [the players] build relationships with each other.
“The players had to work through it and that built resilience within the squad. By not selecting the same team over and over they had to adapt.
“We built squad depth and gave exposure to a lot of players and that is why we are in the position now, where Andre Esterhuizen is on form, Damian de Allende is on form.
“We’ve been doing that since the start of 2022 with a reason. There are a lot of factors to success, but continuity in team selection builds momentum and confidence within the group.”
England might not appear to be the same standard of challenge as last week’s opponents, but at this level there can be no smug satisfaction with what happened six days ago. All that matters is the next challenge.
“The French game was physical, but our policy is if you can’t train on Monday, you can’t play,” Nienaber said.
“Everyone was good and ready to train, so we got a nice stimulus from a physical point of view against France. We will need that going into England, because if you look at their performances, they are improving every game, they are getting better.
“Like the French, they have a unique kicking game, they are comfortable not playing with the ball. They like to strangle you, kick the ball in your half, apply the pressure and wait for you to make a mistake. From a tactical point of view, we know what’s coming and we just need to make sure we execute on the day.”
Ruling the air
England have kicked on average 39.3 times per game at this World Cup, which is by some distance the most at the tournament. They also regain possession 20% of the time. High balls are going to rain down on the Boks all day.
There is almost no chance of England veering from their plan now and morphing into some sort of freewheeling, attacking team. They might get there eventually but at this stage in their development under coach Steve Borthwick, they have shored up their defence and designed a strong kicking game as the quickest way to make metres.
What will be interesting is whether England actually kick long, giving the Boks’ magic back three of Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe space and time to rev their motors.
Or will they kick shorter and create contestable situations where their physically bigger wings Johnny May and Elliot Daly as well as fullback Freddie Steward could win the battle?
It’s likely to be a combination of both and the Boks are well-versed in coping with these tactics while they also have the threat of a lightning counter.
Last week against France, Kolbe ran back at Les Bleus several times and caused mild panic in their defence as he bounced and dipped between beefy forwards.
Kolbe and Arendse’s numbers underline the assertion that they can be lethal.
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Kolbe has averaged 16.7 metres per carry from his 19 carries at the tournament, which is more than any other player to have run with the ball on more than 15 occasions.
Arendse has scored 13 tries in 13 Tests since making his debut in July 2022, only France’s Damian Penaud (17) has scored more for a Tier 1 nation in that period.
Kolbe will fancy his chances in broken play if England feed him the ball with enough space to scan and attack.
Given England’s recent disciplinary issues, especially relating to high tackles, a Kolbe or Arendse bobbing and weaving into their defence does raise the chances of someone connecting high with the Bok wingers.
The Boks also haven’t fully employed their lineout maul yet and they’ve kept first-phase attacking plays to a minimum. Might we see them unleashing some smart plays with Manie Libbok orchestrating some attacking moves?
As ever though, both teams will be looking to the packs to lay some sort of foundation. England cannot afford a repeat of the 2019 final in Yokohama when their scrum was eviscerated by the Boks. South Africa won six scrum penalties alone in that game.
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England have picked props Joe Marler to start with Dan Cole leaving the more mobile Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler on the bench. They’ve also turned to young lock George Milner for more power in the scrum.
“The front-row boys, they always talk about what they think on the second-rows, some pretty direct feedback on how much weight they’re giving,” Borthwick said of Martin’s inclusion to start over Ollie Chessum. “They are usually pretty positive about the weight George Martin gives.
“He’s a young man, very athletic young man but he is one that rises to every challenge since I started working with him a few years ago. He’s embraced and ripped right into it.”
It’s going to be a huge challenge for the youngster against a gnarled Bok pack led by the irrepressible force that is Eben Etzebeth.
The giant lock’s performances for the past two years have almost all been magnificent but he took it up to another level against France last week. Etzebeth’s marauding display might just have been the difference between winning and losing. And he’ll be up for it again.
Etzebeth toned down talk of him being the Boks’ enforcer, which was how captain Siya Kolisi described him.
“From a physical aspect for the forward pack of the Springboks, one guy can’t really enforce anything without the other.” Etzebeth said. As a Springboks pack we try and do that every game. We just work together.”
And on whether there would be any special satisfaction to beating England?
“We’re in the knock-out stage of a World Cup, it doesn’t matter who you play against,” Etzebeth said. “We created so much happiness when we beat France.
“Everyone was so happy knowing you had another shot, another week to prepare and not going back home. Whether it was England or Fiji our preparations wouldn’t have changed, our desperation to win the game wouldn’t have changed.”
England might try to take away scrums from the Boks like France did but they can’t escape them forever while the breakdown battle will be fierce.
Duane Vermeulen showed his value again last week in being able to slow the French ball down. It was a significant performance, especially when you consider he didn’t play against Ireland in the pool phase and the Irish dominated that area of the game.
There are going to be hundreds of little skirmishes across the park and it’s difficult to find one area of the game where England are significantly better than the Boks.
As long as the Boks have the same mentality they have brought to every game, and play with the same manic intensity and accuracy they have displayed at RWC 2023, it should end well.
Quite simply, it’s the Boks’ game to lose. DM
15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 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 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Handre Pollard, 23 Willie le Roux
15 Freddie Steward, 14 Jonny May, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell (captain), 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Ben Earl, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 George Martin, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Joe Marler
Reserves: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ollie Chessum, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Ollie Lawrence
Kick-off: 9pm (SA time)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)