Springboks face balancing act between showing their cards in Rugby Championship or holding some fire for World Cup

FILE - Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus speak to the media during a press briefing in Cape Town. Photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

FILE - Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus speak to the media during a press briefing in Cape Town. Photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jun 3, 2023


Cape Town — With just over a month to go to the first Test of 2023, the Springboks face a delicate balancing act between trying to win and preparing for the Rugby World Cup.

One could argue that clinching the Rugby Championship title should not be a priority when the Webb Ellis Cup is up for grabs later in the year.

But Bok coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus also wouldn’t want to deal with a situation where South Africa lose all six Tests before they rock up in Marseille for the World Cup opener against Scotland on September 10.

The world champions would want to arrive in France with considerable confidence, and that can only be present if they have won at least a few games, have produced some top performances and have seen their plans work out.

In 2019, the Boks were unbeaten before they began their World Cup campaign, having won the Rugby Championship with victories over Australia and Argentina, and a 16-16 draw with the All Blacks in New Zealand, as well as an emphatic 41-7 drilling of Japan in Kumagaya.

And despite losing their World Cup opener 23-13 against the Kiwis, they went all the way to glory in Yokohama.

Even during the World Cup, they were able to vary their play cleverly between being physical and direct — as they were against Italy, as well as the quarter-final against Japan and semi-final against Wales — and showcasing their attacking prowess against Canada and then the final against England, where they came up with some new moves and stretched the defence with ball-in-hand from the early minutes.

“It’s a balance to try and not show everything. But also in doing that, sometimes if you show something, sometimes it doesn’t work the first time — and you refine it,” Nienaber said recently.

“If you think about our defence system, in the beginning, we lost Test matches! Rassie had to, in 2018, bite his lip and we lost Test matches because our wingers got it wrong.

“And we showed the world that ‘Listen, we are probably going to defend a little differently’. But as you go and you see the picture over and over, and the players and their skill-set within that ‘new’ style that you want to do, develops and they actually get better and better and better.

“So, it’s maybe a balance, I would say. Showing something, but also not showing everything — and within that, build your skill-set in the changes that you are trying to do.”

The Boks were heavily criticised for a conservative box-kicking strategy in the 2021 series against the British and Irish Lions, and the management have acknowledged that and explained that it was mainly because the 2020 season was cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

They showed heartening progress in their attacking game last year, though, with the 26-10 victory over the All Blacks in Mbombela seeing a generally positive approach from the Boks — even when they kicked — as they looked to bring wings Kurt-Lee Arendse and Makazole Mapimpi into the game, with Arendse scoring a try as well.

Scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse also caught the eye with the way he cleared the ball from the rucks with real energy.

The four-Test end-of-year tour against Ireland, France, Italy and England represented another significant step forward in the growth of the Bok attack, and now it’s about fine-tuning that approach before the World Cup, starting against the Wallabies on July 8 at Loftus Versfeld.

“Every year is new, but maybe for the players’ individual knowledge going into a Test, he knows that if we have to play a certain way, we can do it because we have done it against the All Blacks already,” Erasmus said.

“It’s almost like a 100-metre sprinter who knows that his time is 9.8. He knows he can run it, and he must just — in that week in his preparation and stuff — that there is no doubt that he has the potential and ability to do it.

“It definitely helps, but it will never be the thing that will cause us to not pick someone who has not done it yet.

“As a group, we can say ‘Boys, we can score good tries and play nice running rugby’. But it is also important that we can make things tight and grind a little.

“I know the word ‘balance’ is becoming such a boring word, but we didn’t have it in 2019, and we couldn’t in 2020. But I feel that at the end of 2022, maybe our timing is just good because we planned for 2023, that all the things were nicely balancing out at the end of 2022.”

Team selection will also be intriguing in the build-up to the World Cup. Should the Boks show their hand entirely during the Rugby Championship? Or do they wait for the last few warm-up games in Europe against Wales and New Zealand to play a full-strength starting XV — or perhaps for the Scotland opener in France?

It is understood that the Boks are again thinking of sending about 15 first-choice players early to New Zealand for their July 15 clash in Auckland, which would see them sit out the Wallaby Loftus game a week earlier — which is what happened in 2019 as well.

But with the Stormers having gone all the way to the URC final last weekend, it means that the likes of Steven Kitshoff, Joseph Dweba, Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Evan Roos, Herschel Jantjies, Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse will have only about six weeks to recover from a gruelling season before the Rugby Championship kicks off.

Yes, Kitshoff, Malherbe and Willemse had a breather for about a month across February and March, but it would help them if they could get an extra week off and sit out the Australia Test in Pretoria.

What Nienaber and Erasmus would be wary of, though, is the impact of Eddie Jones as the new Wallaby coach. The veteran mentor knows how to whip a team into shape, and will be keen to kick off in style by beating the world champions in their own back yard and thereby instilling real confidence in the Aussie camp ahead of the World Cup.

And after the disappointing way in which the Boks went down twice to the Wallabies in Australia last year, they have a score to settle and would need a strong team to do so…


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