When does form trump experience, and vice versa? Springboks must be bold in selections for World Cup quarter-final

Springbok centre André Esterhuizen is a handful as a strike-runner but has also added real finesse to his game in recent years. Photo: AFP

Springbok centre André Esterhuizen is a handful as a strike-runner but has also added real finesse to his game in recent years. Photo: AFP

Published Oct 11, 2023


When it comes to World Cups – in any sport – fans and coaches actually often prefer to go with the experienced option when it comes to a tight selection call.

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus face a number of selection headaches for Sunday’s quarter-final against France. Of course, if you had to ask 10 different people, they would probably name you 10 different starting line-ups and replacement benches.

But what has been refreshing about this Bok set-up over the last two seasons is that they have been willing to spread the net wider and provide opportunities to new players who have earned their way into the reckoning with outstanding performances.

With all of that said and done, the time has come for the Bok bosses to pick their best-possible matchday 23 for their biggest encounter since the 2019 World Cup final. In that regard, I hope Nienaber and Erasmus have the courage in their convictions to make the really big calls at crunch time.

The ‘traditional’ South African mindset would be to go for more established combinations where possible. But for me, the centres and back-three positions for Sunday’s quarter-final truly needs critical thinking.

Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have been playing together since the 2015 World Cup and know each other well.

They have been really good in France as well, with both men producing strong showings in the big games against Scotland and Ireland.

And we know what we will get from both of them: strong ballcarriers, solid on defence, the odd use of the boot and high work-rates.

But are they the two absolute best centres in the squad? Will their efforts be enough to eclipse the excellent French midfield pair of Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou?

I just feel that the alternate Bok duo, André ‘The Giant’ Esterhuizen and Canan Moodie, offer a bit more. It is not about the size of the four Bok centres but more the effect they can have on the opposition.

Esterhuizen has added that much needed finesse to the power-game that he has always possessed.

The Harlequins star is so effective when he crunches into opposition’s defence and then delivers a classy offload in the tackle, or a pass behind him to get the backline away. He also has a highly-effective left boot that can relieve pressure when needed.

Moodie has that extra bit of pace and his reading of the game and spark on attack adds another dimension to the backline. De Allende has similar attributes to Esterhuizen but we hardly see those subtle touches when he is in a Bok jersey.

Kriel is a machine and loves to get stuck in on attack and defence. But he doesn’t quite have that ‘razzle-dazzle’ that Moodie – and Lukhanyo Am – have in their make-up.

That brings us to Am, the incumbent Bok 13.

There is merit in picking him for Sunday – just because of his class, experience and leadership – but he hasn’t played any rugby since sustaining a knee injury against Argentina in August.

Perhaps a place on the bench might suffice for the playmaker.

Talking about playmakers, another major decision for the Bok coaches is at fullback. Yes, Damian Willemse has been top-quality during the World Cup, and against the All Blacks at Twickenham.

But does South Africa’s attack function optimally without Willie le Roux?

I’m not so sure.

I would probably still retain Willemse – because of his effervescence on attack and defence, while he is less prone to making unforced errors. Le Roux has a different skill-set and style. He is more of a playmaker and that is a facet of his game that Willemse can still improve upon.