Forward-looking Springboks opt for sheer power in final against All Blacks
South Africa have gone with seven forwards and one back while New Zealand have opted for a more conventional 5-3 split for Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final at Stade de France.
The Springboks don’t believe in looking back, only forward, and this week they’ve put a literal spin on that approach by naming seven forwards and just one back for the Rugby World Cup 2023 final.
As brazen acts of confidence go, it’s like Muhammad Ali predicting in which round he would knock his opponent out. This is the World Cup final, against the All Blacks! It’s insane. And possibly genius too. The line between the two is a fine one.
They have four scrumhalves in the 33-man Springbok squad but only picked one – Faf de Klerk. They have a makeshift hooker/flank on the bench in Deon Fourie. Cheslin Kolbe will fill in as scrumhalf if needed. What happens if Faf is hurt in the first minute of the game?
There is so much risk, but it’s a team selected with the expected slippery conditions in mind and perhaps some nuggets of information gleaned over two contrasting contests against the All Blacks this year.
At Mt Smart Stadium in the Rugby Championships, the Boks lost 35-20 after falling 17-0 behind in as many minutes. What is forgotten is how much the Boks physically dominated the All Blacks after the half-hour mark.
Six weeks later, with a 7-1 bench, the Boks dismantled a 14-man All Blacks at Twickenham in a pre-RWC match. South Africa again won the physical battle, although there were mitigating circumstances with New Zealand one man short for an hour.
“I’m not going to say what the strengths and weaknesses of the All Blacks are – that would be stupid,” coach Jacques Nienaber said.
“But a lot of analysis went into it and, in the end, we went with a squad of 23.
“It could have been 6-2, 5-3, it doesn’t matter. You select a team that you think can get a result. The 23, we selected for a reason, and the reason is we think they can deliver and win us a back-to-back World Cup.”
Key to this selection was the availability of Bongi Mbonambi, the only recognised hooker in the squad.
Mbonambi has been cleared to play after an investigation into whether he uttered a racial slur against England’s Tom Curry. This comes as a relief for the Boks, as he is vital.
Mbonambi has played almost two full games in the quarterfinal and semifinal and will have to go to the well again on Saturday night in Saint-Denis as the Boks aim to win through abrasion and forward power.
The plan comes with much risk, especially as the one reserve back on the bench is Willie le Roux and not scrumhalf Cobus Reinach. Reinach can cover wing, but Le Roux cannot cover scrumhalf.
De Klerk even floated the idea that former Sevens star, but fifteens flank, Kwagga Smith might cover scrumhalf too. That might be a stretch. But the flaxen-haired scrumhalf was ready to go the entire distance if needed.
“We’ve played like this before and I’ve played a lot of 80-minute games in my life,” De Klerk said.
“If you’re going to pace yourself, you’re going to lose this game. Luckily, we’ve got Kwagga [Smith] covering nine as well, as he doesn’t get tired, so that’s fine.
“Cheslin’s also been training there, so we’ve got back-up, but hopefully I can be there at the end when we win. I just have to make sure I recover well for the game.”
Plan coming together?
Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus have built for six years towards this moment – the final of RWC 2023. But it’s doubtful that when they started the journey, they had planned for a bench with seven forwards.
But tactics and personnel have evolved and the threats New Zealand bring have also been factored into the decision.
“The team is not 15, it is 23. We always say that,” Nienaber said.
“When you do squad selection, there are a lot of things that influence that – from medical (assessments) to past performances, and a lot of analysis into New Zealand and where we think we can get the edge on them.
“Then the discussions start between the coaches and it goes from a 5-3 to a 6-2 to a 7-1, then it goes back again. It is not a 10-minute discussion… it is hours and hours.
“In our case, it will be Cheslin (Kolbe). He played sweeper in sevens which is the equivalent to scrumhalf. He has always been a guy who, if we got a yellow card, would be the stand-in half-back, not just this week but for a couple of weeks.”
The Boks have used the 7-1 split twice before – beating the All Blacks 35-7 with it just a few weeks before RWC started and during the tournament when they lost to Ireland.
It means some unfortunate players among the backs will not get a chance to play, but captain Siya Kolisi stressed that this was not about individuals – it was only about what’s best for the team.
“It’s not about me. I can be disappointed for a little bit but I know the bigger thing (is) if we win,” Kolisi said.
“Those decisions get made and you find, am I going to sulk for me or am I going to think of the bigger project? When we win, South Africa wins. It doesn’t say this guy started or this guy kicked the winning penalty. When they write the name on the trophy, they say South Africa.
“Handre (Pollard) covers 12. He can play 12. Something happens to Doogz (Damian de Allende), Handre can shift in. Those decisions get made because Damian Willemse can cover 10 and 12 and 15. And Cheslin (Kolbe) can play scrumhalf, fullback and wing.
“When they pick the team, they don’t just announce it – they explain the situation to us. We make peace with it.
“For a guy like Manie (Libbok), he really wants to play. He was disappointed but he became Richie Mo’unga (All Blacks flyhalf) in training for the team and gave us the best pictures we could get because he knows that’s the role he is asked to play for this specific game.
It’s the same as Handre (Pollard) had to do, as Marvin Orie (did), who has been amazing for us. Everybody has a role to play.
“That’s just how we see it as a team… it’s far bigger than us.”
All Blacks make minimum changes
Meanwhile, New Zealand tweaked their team for Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final with a single change, but resisted any temptation to power up their bench to offset the forward-heavy list of replacements the Springboks named earlier on Thursday.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster changed his lock combination again, with Brodie Retallick restored to the lineup and Sam Whitelock returning to the list of replacements in his only change to the starting team.
New Zealand believe Whitelock, playing his third World Cup final and his last competitive game, is most effective coming off the bench, and could bring an injection of energy at a time when South Africa are refreshing their forwards.
Retallick and Scott Barrett started against Ireland in the quarterfinal and Barrett and Whitelock were the lock combination in the semifinal success against Argentina.
Among the substitutes, tighthead prop Nepo Lualua comes in for Fletcher Newell, adding more size, but the All Blacks keep a 5-3 split between forwards and backs on the replacements’ bench.
Six of New Zealand’s matchday squad for the game are previous World Cup winners and the 23-man team has a collective total of 1,387 caps, making it the most experienced All Blacks squad for any of their record five World Cup finals appearances.
15-Beauden Barrett, 14-Will Jordan, 13-Rieko Ioane, 12-Jordie Barrett, 11-Mark Telea, 10-Richie Mo’unga, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Ardie Savea, 7-Sam Cane (capt.), 6-Shannon Frizell, 5-Scott Barrett, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Tyrel Lomax, 2-Codie Taylor, 1-Ethan de Groot.
Replacements: 16-Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17-Tamaiti Williams, 18-Nepo Laulala, 19- Sam Whitelock, 20-Dalton Papalii, 21-Finlay Christie, 22-Damian McKenzie, 23-Anton Lienert-Brown.
15-Damian Willemse, 14-Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13-Jesse Kriel, 12-Damian de Allende, 11-Cheslin Kolbe, 10-Handre Pollard, 9-Faf de Klerk, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6-Siya Kolisi (capt.), 5-Franco Mostert, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Frans Malherbe, 2-Bongi Mbonambi, 1-Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16-Deon Fourie, 17-Ox Nche, 18-Trevor Nyakane, 19-Jean Kleyn, 20-RG Snyman, 21-Kwagga Smith, 22-Jasper Wiese, 23-Willie le Roux. DM
Additional reporting by Reuters.