The Springboks score tries when Manie Libbok is at flyhalf, and his brilliant form has made it difficult for him to miss out on a starting berth against France in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Paris (9pm kick-off).
Bok coach Jacques Nienaber overlooked the 2019 World Cup-winning halfback pairing of Handre Pollard and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, as he opted for Libbok and Cobus Reinach instead to drive the attack of the world champions as they bid to reach the final four.
This selection and the unusual five-three bench split are two of the big talking points in the Bok squad ahead of the showdown at the Stade de France.
But Nienaber decided that current form tops experience, and he rewarded the halfbacks who have been tasked to get the Boks off to a flyer and put France under early pressure.
‘Manie is the in-form 10’
“Manie is probably our in-form flyhalf. I think we have lost one game this year when he has started at 10. The team performs when he starts at 10 – it is as simple as that,” Nienaber said about his flyhalf on Friday.
“If you look at a guy like Cobus, he is playing exceptional rugby, so is Faf (de Klerk). But just looking at what the French will bring, we feel this is the best option for us.”
With Pollard and De Klerk on the bench, there’s also the surprise inclusion of Willie le Roux, who hasn’t had the best of tournaments, among the replacements.
There’s no sign of bruising No 8 Jasper Wiese or scrummaging tighthead prop Trevor Nyakane.
But, for the most part, Nienaber went with experience as only four players in the match-23 do not have a World Cup winners medal – Libbok, wing Kurt-Lee Arendse, utility forward Deon Fourie and prop Ox Nche.
“Most of these players have Rugby World Cup experience and several of them were involved in the 2019 final, so they know what it takes to perform in big moments,” Nienaber added.
“We have selected a team, irrespective of the bench, that we think will give us the best opportunity of a victory on Sunday.
“If we select Cobus (Reinach) or Faf (de Klerk), I don’t think there would be a lot of raised eyebrows.
“France has got a very interesting kicking game, and we feel using those two guys will give us the best opportunity.
“For this specific game, we feel Duane (Vermeulen) is the guy we will need, but that doesn’t mean Jasper (Wiese) won’t play in the semi-final. It is based on what we feel we need to get a victory on Sunday,” the coach explained the thinking behind selections.
Boks don’t lose anything in conventionality
Nienaber added that he doesn’t believe the Boks will lose their aura by reverting to a five-three bench split.
They have mostly been using a six-two split, while in two games for the past couple of months, they’ve shocked the world by selecting a seven-one bench.
Looking at France and their style of play, a forward overload amongst the replacements was out of the question.
Six-two also brings a risk, and the split they’ve gone with assures them that there’s a replacement for every position.
The experience of Le Roux, De Klerk and Pollard also means that the Boks can be conservative in the second half and control the game should they have stacked up enough points in the first 40 minutes.
“With every team selection, there is risk. With five-three, it is perceived as more standard and less risky. But you do mitigate that risk with multiple players being able to play in multiple positions,” Nienaber said.
“The last big final we played was against the British and Irish Lions, and we went for a five-three split there. Morné Steyn was selected, and he kicked the last penalty. So, it’s not like we haven’t done five-threes in big games before.”
Springbok team: 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.
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie 17 Ox Nche 18 Vincent Koch 19 RG Snyman 20 Kwagga Smith 21 Faf de Klerk 22 Handré Pollard 23 Willie le Roux.