Springboks will miss Duane Vermuelen but can Jacques Nienaber’s bench gamble blow Ireland away?

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2023 - Pool B - South Africa v Romania - Matmut Atlantique, Bordeaux, France - September 17, 2023South Africa's Duane Vermeulen reacts REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2023 - Pool B - South Africa v Romania - Matmut Atlantique, Bordeaux, France - September 17, 2023South Africa's Duane Vermeulen reacts REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Published Sep 20, 2023


The absence of veteran Springbok eighth man Duane Vermeulen will definitely affect the reigning world champions’ chances of beating Ireland in Paris on Saturday.

But the brave decision of picking a seven-one bench split with two locks, two loose forwards, and only scrumhalf Cobus Reinach as the backline replacement, shows the Boks mean business against their Irish counterparts.

SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus hinted at a forwards overloaded team earlier this week. Confirmation came yesterday when the team to play the third Pool B match was announced, and it included a nuclear ‘Bomb Squad’ for the second time this year.

The Boks look set to use the exact blueprint they overpowered the All Blacks with at Twickenham last month, with just a couple of personnel changes to complete the match-day 23.

Vermeulen is a massive loss as he is one of those players you can bank on to keep heads level, but also to provide a moment or two of brilliance on defence - especially at the breakdown - to get his team out of trouble.

He and injured hooker Malcolm Marx are the only players missing from the starting pack that played against the Kiwis in London.

However, fellow loose forward Kwagga Smith should be able to provide more or less the same impact if he is sent on as a replacement forward.

Smith’s mobility, coupled with his Sevens pedigree, makes him the perfect player to provide back-up among the backs if needed.

Having RG Snyman and Jean Kleyn as the two lock covers on the replacement bench also provides that confidence that lineouts will go smooth even when substitutes come on.

Snyman and Kleyn are both Ireland-based Boks and know their opponents quite well, so by the time they are released, they will have an idea of where to provide the impact to either change momentum for their team or where to attack the Irish to halt their progress.

Judging by the bench coach Jacques Nienaber picked, it will be their task to plant the knockout blow once the starters have worn their opponents down.

Although it looks set to be a forward-dominated battle on Saturday, the Boks ran the All Blacks ragged at the back. And that will be the plan again if the pack gets that domination to set the backline in motion.

“We’re fortunate to have a matchfit squad and have been building depth and versatility for a while and believe this is the best combination for this match,” said Nienaber.

“We know it’s going to be a grind of a match, and know we need to pitch up physically and mentally. We also need to start with intensity and stay focused until the final whistle.

“Ireland are a quality team with a strong pack of forwards and talented backs, and they play with a lot of speed, so we know what we have to do to deliver a top-drawer performance for things to go our way.”

It’s not a surprise that the Bok coaches went for the seven-one split, though.

They have been mixing their cards up quite brilliantly when it comes to picking their teams, and it will keep their opponents guessing on what exactly is the strongest possible side the 2019 champions can choose for a certain match-day.

And you can expect more of this as the tournament heads toward the business end.

The only other question mark around the selection will most likely be around the centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. Yes, Andre Esterhuizen and Canan Moodie don’t come with the experience, but they overpowered New Zealand at Twickenham and set the backline away in that game.

De Allende and Kriel are capable of doing that, but they haven’t shown it yet. If they hit their straps, the backline will be able to create the opportunities to put Ireland to bed.

Defensively, the team should be good enough to handle the pressure that the Irish will generate. Even though they have been missing some tackles, their scramble defence is up to standard, and it can be another crucial part of their game plan come Saturday.

Springboks starting XV: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Faf de Klerk; 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (capt), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff

Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Jean Kleyn, 20 RG Snyman, 21 Marco van Staden, 22 Kwagga Smith, 23 Cobus Reinach