The Springboks are in an awkward position ahead of their second Test against Australia as several forced changes bring to light some serious concerns for manager Jacques Nienaber ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
For a squad praised for its depth, Nienaber and his coaching staff have failed to address glaring question marks at critical positions.
The concern begins with Hooker, where Nienaber is blessed with two world-class players in Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx, who have been mainstays since Rassie Erasmus took over the side in 2018.
While the duo have largely kept themselves healthy, due to the nature of rugby, injuries are inevitable. Mbonambi’s injury before the Ellis Park Test against the All Blacks is a prime example of this and led to Nienaber making a crucial error by starting Joseph Dweba.
The newly signed Stormer showed promise in the Springboks set up during the British & Irish Lions series and looked good at becoming a quality third hooker for the world champions.
However, the decision not to start Marx, who had had the performance of his life at Nelspruit a week earlier, for the clash at Ellis Park and throw Dweba deep backfired significantly.
Dweba’s fundamental skills were evident in his lineout throwing and scrummaging ability. Now, that’s not to say that the hooker has no potential. Nonetheless, Nienaber effectively sent the 26-year-old through a baptism of fire from media and fans alike, which inevitably took a toll on his confidence and possibly development.
Why not start Marx, arguably the form whore of the world, and after the hard work is done, get Dweba 30 minutes on the backend and let him make the most of the platform to get used to the testing scene?
Then give Dweba his start against Australia with confidence in his abilities and don’t come from being crucified by the media. Now Nienaber finds himself in a position where he’d rather bench Deon Fourie, a flanker who’s had his front-row time, instead of Dweba this weekend.
The questionable decision-making goes further when looking at the 42-man squad named for the rugby championship, where five scrum-halves were named and only three hookers.
Basically, both positions are crucial, but all five scrum halves have at least one test cap on their name. It would make more sense to pick an extra hooker in Bulls star Johan Grobbelaar, who was previously in setup and excelled at the United Rugby Championship (URC). Then, when the crisis hits like it is now, there’s a fourth hooker with a boatload of potential to call on that will make the squad that much better heading into the World Cup.
A standout player with phenomenal breakdown skills, Fourie will take on a mischievous Brit role en route to the flagship event, but he doesn’t have to be the backup hooker.
Fly-half is another interesting weakness in the Springboks’ roster. Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies are just two absolute pivots in the lineup and the risks associated with such a limited selection have already caught up with the South Africans.
Of course, Damian Willemse is versatile and will start at 10 this weekend, but looking ahead to the World Cup, how can there only be two specialized flying halves in the wider squad?
Injuries are the number one concern and this week has underscored that, even before considering it’s no secret Pollard isn’t his old self, having been near perfect time and time again during the World Cup win. Instead, the pivot was inconsistent and sometimes unreliable.
Meanwhile, Jantjies, who was also thrown in at the deep end to start against Wales after months out injured, is a questionable choice at Test level. The former Lion is a fantastic rugby player and one of the best fly-halves in attack, but his style has never suited the Springbok setup as well as it has at club level.
This begs the question: What about the World Cup? Granted, there weren’t absolute bolters for a fly-half spot in the URC squad, like there was an Evan Roos for the number eight, but picking two fly-halfs who aren’t in their best form is risky.
Bringing in Bulls fly-half Chris Smith could have been an option. The 27-year-old isn’t quite ready for Test rugby just yet but his fundamentals are brilliant and he offers a similar package to Morne Steyn with solid off-hand and on-target kicks. Get him on the bigger squad to train at high intensity and learn the systems because if disaster strikes Smith would be a lot closer to the level he needs to be.
Willemse is a solution at half-time and is likely to excel this weekend, but if the 24-year-old were to suffer an injury or suspension this week, Nienaber would be grasping at straws. Of course there’s always Frans Steyn to fill the gap, but with all due respect to the legendary springbok, it would be difficult to defend a World Cup with the 35-year-old at half-time.
The situation is not as dire as this report suggests, but the consequences of the decisions now being made by Springbok’s coaching staff will only be amplified en route to France 2023, and Nienaber needs to be spot on if his side are to want to defend the title. There’s a reason Webb Ellis’ trophy has only been defended once.
CONTINUE READING: Handre Pollard and Lukhanyo Am were eliminated for the remainder of the Rugby Championship and sent to Leicester Tigers and Sharks