December 10, 2023

South Africa have painted themselves into a corner

South Africa have painted themselves into a corner

Fair play to Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus. They don’t play by anyone else’s rules.

First broke convention and named a 7-1 bench split in favour of forwards for the friendly against New Zealand in August. But the decision was easily dismissed as a whacky experiment that would never see the light of day in a game that mattered.

Then they repeated the trick against Ireland in a World Cup pool match. Ah yes, the commentators mused, this game didn’t count either. You see, they could afford to lose this one. It was basically a free shot. Why not stack the deck with seven forwards? What’s the worst that could happen?

So when they reached the knockouts and named a more conventional 5-3 split, it felt as if sanity had finally prevailed. Erasmus, with his traffic lights from the roof, and Nienaber, with his obsession for numbers only he can see, had finally, finally, seen reason. But if you think that logic would precipitate more logic, you haven’t been paying attention to a six year story that has been harder to follow than a Christopher Nolan sci-fi.

Because in the game that matters most, a World Cup final against the New Zealand All Blacks, South Africa’s script writers have served up a twist of epic proportions – a bench split of seven forwards and one solitary back who has looked out of sorts across the tournament and is proficient in only one position.

Of course, there is a modicum of sense to be gleaned from this otherwise baffling call. The Springboks appeared understandably knackered by the end of their gruelling match against England in the semi-finals. The week before they were asked to tackle rhinos and wildebeest in the quarterfinal blockbuster against France. And in the driving Parisian rain, Steve Borthwick’s English charges won the arm wrestle for most of the contest.

It’s not often Eben Etzebeth is given the shepherd’s crook less than 10 minutes into the second half but his substitution against England was justified. He was a spent force. A damp squib. A busted flush. Except he wasn’t the only member of the much vaunted tight five that got bossed and bullied by the team on the white side.

In order to rectify the threat of running out of fuel in the final, South Africa’s coaches have opted to stockpile as much wood for the furnace as they can carry. They’ve left Ox Nche, the monster scrummager who turned the tide against England, on the bench. They’ve also added the considerable heft of Jean Kleyn and Jasper Wiese to the mix. Both players will enter the scene and be tasked with one specific job. The smash anyone wearing a black jersey with all the force of a collapsing star.

South Africa’s strategy is clear. Manie Libbok has got the axe following a disappointing show against England. It wasn’t his fault he hardly got any front ball to work with, but the wet weather amplified his flaws and with rain expected again this weekend, it’s easy to see why his coaches opted not to gamble on his inclusion.

The same rationale could be used to explain Cobus Reinach’s omission. The men who steadied the teetering ship in the semi-final by replacing the two dazzling half-backs – Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk – might not be electric, but they offer safer hands. History shows that World Cup finals are won by the side that makes fewer mistakes.

But here’s the thing. A 7-1 split is a bit like the Schrödinger Cat of rugby team selections. It’s both adventurous and conservative. It’s a ballsy move if it pays off and the plethora of forwards can keep the engine chugging at full throttle. But at the same time it feels like an unnecessarily mawkish ploy that is done more in hope than intention. It’s as if the Boks have decided to start a mixed martial arts fight by lying down and kicking upwards, hoping that their opponent maniacally runs straight into a flailing foot.

In order for this to work the Springboks have to take a lead. When they used the 7-1 strategy against New Zealand two months ago, the All Blacks were reduced to 13 men after two quick yellow cards to Scott Barrett and Sam Cane. The Springboks then scored two tries to open a 14-0 lead and would score another two tries as they breezed to a 28-0 advantage.

Because New Zealand had to chase the game, and because New Zealand were fielding an inexperienced pack, and because New Zealand were further hamstrung when Barrett copped a red card just before the half-time break, South Africa could keep their opponents at arm’s length throughout. Their rumbling forwards could dictate the tempo while their backs had the luxury of picking off the Kiwis who were reduced to a ragged mess.

If, however, the Boks go behind early on, as they did when the All Blacks cruised to a 35-20 win in the Rugby Championship in Auckland in July, then the South Africans will be scrambling. If that transpires, the Springboks might look up and realise they’ve painted themselves into a corner without the personnel to find a way out.

Damian Willemse might have to play the game of his life, stepping up at first receiver to unfurl a distribution game that would be a tribute to Carlos Spencer in his hay-day. Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse, who were both starved of the ball against England and were second best in the battle for the skies, will each have to unleash a hot-stepping virtuoso. And the centre pair of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel, ordinarily a more defensively-minded duo, would have to find an attacking zeal that would make Danie Gerber proud.

Can the Springboks win this match and become world champions for a record fourth time? Of course they can. Who’s to say that everything won’t go according to plan? There’s every chance they steamroll the All Blacks, underlining the genius of ‘RasNaber’ and confirm their status as the greatest rugby nation on the planet. But the reverse could also happen. This could get ugly for the Boks as wave after wave of inept runners in green break upon obsidian black rocks. It will all come down to that opening half hour. Set your watch for 21:30 local time. By then we should know if the bold decision paid off.

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