Cape Town - The decision to leave Aphelele Fassi out of the Springbok match-23 for Saturday’s Test against Wales in Cardiff is yet another missed opportunity for coach Jacques Nienaber to assess his depth.
Nienaber deserves praise for at least giving Damian Willemse a chance at fullback, with the experienced Willie le Roux taking a breather, having started most Tests since 2018.
The Bok coach spoke yesterday about how Willemse had been patient and waited for another starting opportunity, having had just three in 14 Tests, and he felt that Fassi had to wait his turn as well.
But the circumstances ahead of Saturday’s match should have seen Fassi at left wing, with Makazole Mapimpi on the right.
With Cheslin Kolbe still injured, Sbu Nkosi was the man in possession of the No 14 jersey, but his unfortunate administrative hassles with his passport – which is not a good look for everybody involved – has meant that he is not yet in the UK.
Instead of Fassi running out at the Millennium Stadium, though, Nienaber has opted for Jesse Kriel. Now Kriel was listed as a midfielder when the squad was announced on 19 October, alongside Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, with Fassi, Mapimpi, Le Roux and Nkosi as outside backs, and Willemse and Frans Steyn as utility backs.
Of course, a coach can pick whomever he wants in any position, but Kriel at No 14 makes little sense to me. He was a fullback as a youngster and then morphed into a quality outside centre, but doesn’t quite possess the necessary speed, skill and experience to be a wing.
Nienaber explained that Kriel had started for the Boks at right wing before, against the All Blacks in Wellington, but that was in 2018 – the famous 36-34 victory, where he moved to centre during the game anyway after Am broke his arm, which saw Kolbe come on as a replacement and score an intercept try.
Fassi is the next big thing in South African rugby, and his ability to unlock defences with his pace and fancy footwork would have given the Boks a fresh dimension on attack – and defence for that matter, where he is solid under the high ball and doesn’t shirk his tackling duties.
The Sharks star played at left wing for the Boks and scored on debut against Georgia this year, and has been unlucky to miss out to Le Roux at fullback all year – and now he has had to take a back seat to Willemse, who has been a replacement centre in 2021, as well.
Nienaber finally said that he is now thinking of the 2023 World Cup, which was part of the reason for Willemse’s selection, and that was encouraging to hear, because up to now, we’ve seen little evidence of that.
The Bok management stuck with the tried and tested against the British & Irish Lions and the Rugby Championship, and even for the
Wales Test, their selection hand has largely been forced by injuries and the unavailability of Nkosi.
This November tour is the time to test a few new faces under pressure, especially in European conditions, and to build experience ahead of France 2023.
Let’s hope that more fringe players get game time against Scotland and England, as the Boks are still some way off reaching the levels of the 2019 World Cup-winning squad.