Johannesburg — Strength in depth among forwards and backs has South Africans believing that captain Siya Kolisi and his Springboks can successfully defend in France the Rugby World Cup they won four years ago.
Winning back-to-back titles at the global showpiece has proven difficult with only the Richie McCaw-skippered New Zealand achieving the feat, in 2011 and 2015.
But despite facing a much more difficult path in France than in Japan four years ago, the title-holders deserve to be among the favourites, along with France, Ireland and New Zealand.
In a 35-7 mauling of New Zealand in their final warm-up match, the Springboks turned a late withdrawal from the matchday 23 to their advantage and demonstrated the depth of their talent pool.
Opting not to risk reserve back Willie le Roux because of a rib injury, South Africa took their so-called ‘bomb squad’ ploy one step further by choosing a 7-1 forwards/backs split on the bench.
It worked a treat with the world champions able to replace all bar one of their forwards after half-time without diminishing the strength of the team.
#⃣WATCH as @Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber unpacks the reasons behind the decision to play with seven forwards and just one back, as well as their future plans for the bench 🤔#Rugby 🏉#RugbyUnion🌏@rugbyworldcup 🏆
— rugby365.com (@rugby365com) August 29, 2023
After scoring 14 points in the opening half with a line-up probably close to that which will face Scotland in their Pool B opener on September 10, they added 21 more following the break.
Teams usually choose five forward and three back replacements, but at the 2019 World Cup, the Springboks picked six forwards and just two backs.
With one Springbok back a specialist scrum-half, the other had to be extremely versatile and recently retired Francois Steyn was able to cover the full-back, centre and fly-half positions.
There is a natural successor to Steyn in Damian Willemse, who started at full-back and was voted man of the match in the demolition of the All Blacks at Twickenham.
“The aim of (director of rugby) Rassie (Erasmus) and I since we took charge of the Springboks in 2018 was to build squad depth for 2023,” said head coach Jacques Nienaber.
“You do not win a World Cup with a great team — you win it with a great squad. We have given caps to more than 100 players in an endless search for the best South African rugby players.”
When Nienaber named his 33-man squad for France, he had to omit fly-half Handre Pollard and outside centre Lukhanyo Am, both injured, and ill lock Lood de Jager.
All were starters in the 2019 final triumph over England in Yokohama.
“Injuries gave fringe players chances to wear the green and gold. The misfortune of one player creates an opening for another,” said Nienaber.
Pollard, who kicked 22 points in the 2019 final, and Am are recovering and could be considered for inclusion should a player be forced to pull out through injury.
Manie Libbok has replaced Pollard in the key playmaker role with mixed initial results – his creativity with ball in hand and good distribution mitigating modest goal-kicking.
He missed four of nine shots at the posts in warm-up victories over Argentina and Wales, leading to negative public and media comparisons with Pollard.
But his fortunes from the tee took a turn for the better against New Zealand as he succeeded with all five kicks at goal, including several from acute angles.
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Libbok is set to start at least against Scotland and Ireland in a pool that also includes Romania and Tonga and, assuming South Africa qualify, in the knockout stages.
He will be partnered by scrum-half Faf de Klerk who, after a loss of form last year, has re-established himself as the first choice.
A couple of months ago it seemed the 2019 three-quarter line of wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi and centres Am and Damian de Allende would be retained.
But Am is unavailable, and De Allende and Mapimpi are under pressure from Andre Esterhuizen and the baby of the squad, 20-year-old Canan Moodie, who can operate as a centre or wing.
Veteran Le Roux, one of nine Springboks chosen for a third World Cup, is likely to get the nod at full-back due to his experience and ability to act as an alternate first receiver.
In a possible change from the Japan World Cup, Nienaber may start with what he considers his strongest forwards before unleashing the ‘bomb squad’.
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