Jacques Nienaber trying to recreate Springboks ‘Bomb Squad’ with five forwards
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CAPE TOWN - You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t when you are the Springbok coach, and that is probably where Jacques Nienaber finds himself right now.
Having picked his first real Test squad of his tenure – the Georgia game was merely a warm-up – for Saturday’s high-stakes first match against the British and Irish Lions yesterday, Nienaber stuck largely with the World Cup-winning group, but also sprung a few surprises.
He went for the full backline from the 2019 final, but questions have to be raised about the readiness of wing Makazole Mapimpi, who has been in Covid-19 isolation up until Monday, and so too captain Siya Kolisi.
Nienaber gave an indication that they may only play in the first half – and even come off inside the opening 40 minutes – by stating yesterday that “if the players on the field are not producing or fulfilling his required role… the moment they don’t fulfil that role anymore, due to being tired, Covid or being exposed to rugby for quite some time, we will make a substitution”.
But it is a considerable risk, and Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus are hoping that their gamble will pay off. At least that’s how it looks from the outside, because the Boks are in a bio-secure bubble and don’t have prying media eyes at their training sessions.
The head coach made a big call in the front row to start with Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane instead of Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe.
Nche and Mbonambi have also been in Covid isolation up to last weekend, while Nyakane wasn’t convincing in the scrums for SA A against the Lions last Wednesday.
But with Malherbe having been sidelined with Covid recently as well, it left Nienaber with little choice to have Nyakane at No 3.
Marx strangely played off the bench in the SA A game against the Lions last week, when he should have got more game time as Mbonambi wasn’t sure about being ready for the first Test.
Nienaber feels that Nche “brings nice line-speed, good dynamism as a loosehead that can chase with loose forwards in the chase-line in the kicking game”.
But still, Kitshoff was the deserved next-in-line at No 1 following Tendai Mtawarira’s retirement after the World Cup, and the Stormers captain can’t be happy with that selection.
It looks like Nienaber is trying to create a ‘Bomb Squad’ situation without it actually being the same formation from the World Cup, as there are only five forwards substitutes instead of six – mainly due to the absence of RG Snyman, while Lood de Jager is also playing off the bench as he makes his way back from Covid isolation.
While the Lions tight five may feel that they can take on the Bok scrum in the opening 40 minutes, they won’t be relishing having to see Kitshoff, Marx and Malherbe – as well as De Jager – come on to the pitch after halftime.
Add in a destructive force such as Rynhardt Elstadt, and you could almost think you are back at the World Cup in Japan...
In terms of the backline reserves, Nienaber may have missed a trick there in not including Aphelele Fassi or even Sbu Nkosi. Elton Jantjies already covers flyhalf and could operate at inside centre if required, while Damian Willemse covers the same positions, as well as fullback.
Fassi has shown his class in the Georgia Test and for SA A against the Lions, and brings attributes to Willemse – who did well against the Lions at inside centre – as a fullback and wing cover.
But now we wait in anticipation for Saturday’s 6pm kickoff, and only then can Nienaber be truly judged.
15 Willie le Roux 14 Cheslin Kolbe 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende 11 Makazole Mapimpi 10 Handre Pollard (vice-captain) 9 Faf de Klerk 8 Kwagga Smith 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit 6 Siya Kolisi (captain) 5 Franco Mostert 4 Eben Etzebeth 3 Trevor Nyakane 2 Bongi Mbonambi 1 Ox Nche.
Bench: 16 Malcolm Marx 17 Steven Kitshoff 18 Frans Malherbe 19 Lood de Jager 20 Rynhardt Elstadt 21 Herschel Jantjies 22 Elton Jantjies 23 Damian Willemse.