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RWC 2023

Tough aerial battle faces Boks as England have to back their kicking strategy to upset the favourites

Tough aerial battle faces Boks as England have to back their kicking strategy to upset the favourites
Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa beats Damian Penaud of France to score his team third try during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 quarter final on 15 October, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

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.

Kurt-Lee Arendse, Boks vs England

Kurt-Lee Arendse of the Boks runs with the ball during the Rugby World Cup 2023 quarter final against France. (Photo: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

“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?

Maro Itoje

Maro Itoje of England breaks with the ball during his team’s Rugby World Cup 2023 Quarter Final match against Fiji. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

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.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup News Hub

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?

Forwards

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.

Read more in Daly Maverick: WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS! Kolisi’s brutal Boks stun England

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.

Eben Etzebeth, Boks vs England

Eben Etzebeth of South Africa wins the line out against Tonga at Stade Velodrome on 1 October, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

“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

Teams:

South Africa

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

 

England

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)

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    That France game was TOO close! One missed kick, or not for that conversion charged down and the team would have been home by now.

    Hopefully Willie only comes on when we are 25 points clear and 5minutes left, because England kick and Willie doesn’t contest high balls.

    • Joe Irwin says:

      Individuals we always stand out in close matches. The charge down by Kolbe was excellent, but don’t forget the 52 metre penalty that Pollard scored. The workrate of Jesse Kriel, my man of the match, and Eben Etzebeth was exceptional.
      A brilliant team effort is what won us the match against the French.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Don’t call us the favourites! I’ve got Nix.

  • bigbad jon says:

    George Ford, England’s kicker who scored all their points with drop goals and penalties against Argentina is on the bench. Nailing him quickly if he comes on seems prudent..

  • Coen Gous says:

    All Blacks were ruthless against Argentina, though it appears that the latter was simply totally outclassed. Think England will be much tougher, but unless there is a bit of complacency, doubt if England has the ammunition to stop the Boks, Nevertheless, will watch the game with anxiety following last Sunday’s cracker!

  • Gordon Bentley says:

    To my mind I would prefer to see Pollard as the fixture in the team as long as possible – we have seen how easy it is to lose points if Libbok is slightly off form. Don’t get me wrong, he is a wonderful asset to the team otherwise.

    Another player who bothers me is Faf DeKlerk – he cannot resist kicking if he gets the ball even if it is a kick with absolutely no potential – many of his kicks are merely kicking away our possession into the arms of the opposition. I have also noted that the opposition have, in too many cases, gone on to score from “getting our posession”… Jantjies also used to do the same… Please, Coaches tell him to avoid this and to be aware of this fruitless action…

    Go Bokke Go! Best of luck with bringing the trophy home!

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