Springboks’ World Cup final result hinges on flyhalf selection and bench split
Springbok coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are under pressure to get their selections right for the Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand in Paris this Saturday.
The coaches favoured an unchanged 23-man squad for the recent playoffs against France and England, and the Boks went on to secure one-point victories in each of those fixtures. On the basis of those results, it may seem that the Boks have found their winning formula.
The quality of those performances, however, left a lot to be desired, and the Bok coaching team has been working day and night to understand what went wrong. It’s fair to say that they will have much to ponder before the team announcement this Thursday.
The player the Boks can’t afford to lose
The Bok coaches will tell you that no player is indispensable, and that they have two to three options in each position that are capable of firing in a World Cup final.
That may have been true at the start of the tournament, when star hooker Malcolm Marx was still in tow. Since his tournament-ending injury, however, the front-row resources have been stretched to the limit.
In the wake of the recent semifinal, it came to light that England flanker Tom Curry had accused Bongi Mbonambi of uttering a racial slur during the first half. World Rugby announced on Monday that it was investigating Curry’s claim.
How will this affect the final? A guilty verdict would almost certainly result in a suspension for Mbonambi, but it seems unlikely that this investigation will be concluded in a week.
South Africa need Mbonambi to face the All Blacks – for a couple of reasons. He has been one of the Boks’ most important players for some time, and since Marx’s exit has become the most indispensable player in the squad.
Erasmus and Nienaber showed their hand when they picked Mbonambi to captain the side in the World Cup warm-up game against Argentina in Buenos Aires two months ago. With regular skipper Siya Kolisi’s fitness in doubt – or rather his ability to play 80 minutes – they needed another leader to take the captaincy reins after Kolisi left the field.
Kolisi made his return from injury in the next game against Wales in Cardiff, and Mbonambi was named on the bench. The coaches persisted with this leadership strategy in the subsequent warm-up against New Zealand, and in the first World Cup pool match against Scotland.
Disaster struck when Marx sustained a serious injury in training following the match against Scotland. Suddenly the Boks had to contemplate a World Cup campaign without one of their best players, and had to explore the contingency of fielding utility forwards such as Deon Fourie and Marco van Staden in the front row.
The leadership strategy of starting with Kolisi and finishing with Mbonambi was compromised, as Mbonambi was forced to fill the void left by Marx in the starting side.
The coaches boxed clever in the remaining pool matches. Mbonambi played 40 minutes against Romania, before he was subbed at half-time. Fourie and Van Staden – who both play their club rugby in the back row – shared the hooking duties in the second half, and did an outstanding job.
The Boks need Mbonambi to set the tone at the set pieces this Saturday. Whether he can last 70 to 80 minutes is another story.
Mbonambi played 64 minutes against Ireland, before making way for Fourie in the final stages. The first-choice hooker was given a rest thereafter, as Fourie and Van Staden were deployed in the front row against Tonga.
The management of Mbonambi across the playoffs has been very different, however, due to the set-piece challenge of France and England, and the need for a strong leader on the pitch in the dying stages.
Mbonambi played 75 minutes against France and a full 80 in the subsequent semifinal against England. It’s an extraordinary shift for a front-ranker, given that props and hookers are traditionally rotated between the 50- and 60-minute mark in big Tests.
The concern is that Mbonambi, South Africa’s first-choice hooker and designated captain for the final stretch, will go into the final having played a lot of rugby in 2023.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
Mbonambi has featured in 11 of the 12 Tests to date, starting on seven occasions. Of the Bok forwards, only Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen have racked up more game minutes during this World Cup campaign – although it’s worth noting that Du Toit has been rested for two fixtures and Vermeulen for one.
The Boks need Mbonambi to set the tone at the set pieces this Saturday. Whether he can last 70 to 80 minutes is another story, and that uncertainty may influence the Bok coaches’ other selections, particularly on the bench.
Flyhalf selection remains complicated
Handré Pollard has been managed carefully over the past few months since returning from a serious calf injury. South Africa’s first-choice flyhalf wasn’t selected in the initial World Cup squad, and was only flown to France after Marx was ruled out.
Pollard started at No 10 in the final pool match against Tonga, but was subbed after 51 minutes. The coaches were reluctant to start him against France and England, because they feared that he might not last 80 minutes, and that he would not be on the field if the Boks needed a penalty or conversion to win the game.
Take nothing away from Manie Libbok, who has impressed in other departments during this tournament, but Pollard is a more experienced player with a record of slotting important kicks in knockout matches. The decision to select Pollard on the bench against France and England paid off handsomely, as the veteran nailed match-winning penalties towards the end of both fixtures.
Pollard is more suited to a wet-weather approach, but the decision to start him may come with its own set of risks.
Why should the Boks move away from the Libbok-Pollard dynamic for the final against the All Blacks? The call will depend on Pollard’s fitness.
If the coaches believe that Pollard can last 80 minutes – or 100, if the game goes to extra time – they may hand him the No 10 jersey. The Boks need a goal-kicker who can convert momentum and penalties into territory and points, and over the course of three World Cup campaigns, Pollard has proved that he is the man for the job.
And yet, if there’s still a concern about his ability to go the distance, the coaches will stick to the plan of starting with Libbok – who lacks Test experience, but has won titles with the Stormers in recent years. Libbok will have an important role to play in generating scoreboard pressure, but again, the Boks will prefer to have their best goal-kicker on the park at the death.
Erasmus and Nienaber don’t like to take chances. They will consider all of the factors before making this call.
Wet weather is expected for the final, and Libbok’s attacking influence may well be nullified in those conditions, as was the case in the rain-affected semifinal. Pollard is more suited to a wet-weather approach, but the decision to start him may come with its own set of risks.
Bench-split will be decisive
Pollard’s role and match fitness has influenced the coaches’ decision to favour a 5-3 split on the bench in recent matches.
Ideally, the Boks would have travelled to the 2023 World Cup with a fully fit Pollard, and stuck with a 6-2 bench. They may have persisted with this dynamic if Marx had avoided injury, and Libbok had continued to start at No 10.
Marx’s injury, Pollard’s return and Libbok’s inconsistent goal-kicking, of course, have all contributed to a rethink. Since the match against Tonga, the coaches have persisted with a 5-3 bench to accommodate Pollard among the reserves.
It presents the Bok coaches with an interesting conundrum ahead of the final against the All Blacks.
The Boks favoured a 7-1 split between forwards and backs in the most recent clash against the All Blacks in London. They looked to be on course for a big hiding in the preceding clash in Auckland, before the 6-2 bench provided them with some hope of a comeback victory in the second stanza.
In both of the 2022 Tests against the All Blacks, the Boks opted for a 6-2 split. Something should be read into the fact that the Boks have favoured such a forward-heavy bench in their past four battles against New Zealand.
Something has to give ahead of the final team announcement this Thursday.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the coaches returning to a 6-2 bench, given their previous approach to these New Zealand clashes, and the amount of rugby played by the Boks forwards at this World Cup.
The All Blacks are the fresher of the two sides. Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Jordie Barrett and Tyrel Lomax missed the first two matches of New Zealand’s World Cup campaign, but have recovered from their respective injuries to rejoin a resurgent All Blacks outfit in the playoffs. The men in black appear to be peaking at the right time.
Steven Kitshoff, Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe are key players for the Boks, but are in the red in terms of game minutes. Eben Etzebeth will get himself up for the final, but may not last 80 minutes.
The performance of the Bok bench will be decisive. The Boks have one of the world’s best players in RG Snyman among their reserves. If the coaches opt for a 6-2 split, they will have to decide whether to include an extra lock or loose forward. Jean Kleyn had a massive game against the All Blacks in London, but so did reserve loose forwards such as Van Staden and Kwagga Smith.
To persist with a 6-2 split, the Boks will have to sacrifice one of their specialist flyhalves, and in that scenario Libbok may be considered surplus to requirements.
It may seem a brutal decision, given Libbok has contributed so much to the cause over the past few months and has revived South Africa’s attack. But in the context of game management and goal-kicking, Pollard has proved that he is South Africa’s most important No 10 at this stage of the tournament, and can be counted on to deliver the match-winning kick.
Again, it may come down to whether the coaches feel that Pollard has recovered to the point where he can play an entire match. It’s a call that may well determine whether the Boks finish as champions or runners-up at the Stade de France this Saturday. DM