Cape Town - Now that the stakes are at its highest for the Springboks, coach Jacques Nienaber has shown his hand and picked a bold team for Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash against the All Blacks at Mbombela Stadium.
Nienaber must be given credit for not going the conservative route with his starting XV and replacements bench.
It would have been the safer option to recall Willie le Roux at fullback, and bring in the experienced Jesse Kriel at right wing.
Instead, Nienaber’s decision to stick with Damian Willemse at No 15 and start Kurt-Lee Arendse in place of the injured Cheslin Kolbe at No 14 shows that the Bok boss wants to take the next step in this team’s growth.
“We’ve got a like-for-like replacement there, but we’re also rewarding performance. I think he played very well in the Wales Test,” Nienaber said about Arendse.
But, having made those calls, will the Bok mentor allow those players to do what got them into the team in the first place?
That seemed to be the problem in the second Wales Test in Bloemfontein, where a number of form players from the United Rugby Championship were given caps, but then had to stick with the trademark game-plan of suffocate and strangle.
The few times Arendse, for instance, did stretch his legs, he looked as dangerous as he was for the Bulls in the URC – but those moments were just too fleeting.
It was just like when Kolbe is starved of possession and has to chase kicks downfield, so it would be a waste of his talent if Arendse has to do the same against New Zealand.
The same goes for Willemse, who was one of the shining lights in the Stormers’ charge to the URC title, even though he was at inside centre for the Cape outfit.
He needs to be trusted to make the right decisions on attack instead of sticking strictly to the up-and-under script.
Sure, there needs to be a framework in place of how the Boks want to attack the Kiwis, but surely the likes of Arendse, Willemse and Makazole Mapimpi must be able to weave their individual magic as well?
While coach Ian Foster and his team are under huge pressure following the 2-1 series loss to Ireland – with their forwards’ lack of physicality the biggest talking point – they still have lethal backs such as Rieko Ioane and Sevu Reece, who are able to cut open any defence.
So, the Boks can’t just rely on three-pointers from penalties and maul tries to score points – they need to come up with solutions to finish off those 22-metre entries.
The rest of the South African team was as expected, with hooker Malcolm Marx getting a start for his 50th cap.
But going for the six-two bench split in favour of the forwards is a bit of a gamble by Nienaber. We saw what happened in the third Wales Test at Cape Town Stadium when Kolbe went off, as the whole backline had to be reconfigured when Le Roux came on.
The Bok boss will feel he has enough cover for all backline positions via Willemse and De Klerk, though, and he mentioned on Tuesday that Kwagga Smith can cover wing in an emergency as well.
15 Damian Willemse 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse 13 Lukhanyo Am 12 Damian de Allende 11 Makazole Mapimpi 10 Handre Pollard 9 Faf de Klerk 8 Jasper Wiese 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit 6 Siya Kolisi (captain) 5 Lood de Jager 4 Eben Etzebeth 3 Frans Malherbe 2 Malcolm Marx 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Bench: 16 Bongi Mbonambi 17 Steven Kitshoff 18 Vincent Koch 19 Salmaan Moerat 20 Franco Mostert 21 Kwagga Smith 22 Jaden Hendrikse 23 Willie le Roux.