The Springboks face an improved Wales side to the one that lost to the All Blacks last weekend, but the expectation must still be a Springbok win. The Bok bench will be integral to that success, writes Oliver Keohane.
New Zealand, leading 28-9 after an hour against Wales last weekend, were always in control of the game. However it was the introduction of the All Black bench that effected the biggest change on the scoreboard, with their fresh legs complementing the starting players to ensure 26 points were scored in the final 20 minutes to take the All Blacks to a record-breaking 54-16 victory.
It will not be as easy for the Springboks against an improved Welsh side this weekend, but their bench will be of equal importance – if not more – to that of the All Blacks last weekend. Aside from the straight swap between Jantjies and Reinach, the Springbok bench selected for Saturday is the same one that was so successful in their Rugby Championship win over the All Blacks in early October.
The Springboks have the luxury of starting two world class packs at any given time, and though 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph Du Toit, and lock RG Snyman are in recovery from serious injuries, the starting Springbok pack remains impressive, as do the five replacements on the bench.
The decision to introduce Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch and Malcolm Marx from the bench has been a master stroke in allowing the Springboks to close out games, but it is a luxury only afforded to them off the base that Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and Ox Nche have been laying over the first 40 minutes. Jasper Wiese is capable of covering across the back row, as is Franco Mostert on either flank – while he also provides comfort to the two starting locks. Mostert has been one of the Springboks best players this year, and has had a huge starting workload demanded of him, so to have him back on the bench where his versatility can again become a strength is a huge bonus for the Boks.
But it is not the pack that had people pondering when Nienaber announced his side on Tuesday.
Damian Willemse has been selected in place of Wille Le Roux at fullback, while Jesse Kriel has been backed on the right wing, having only ever played there once at Test level. Willemse, for all his talent, has been erratic when given game time at fullback and his form suggests that his future is at inside centre or flyhalf. Kriel, for all his qualities as a Test player, is an outside centre.
This is not to say that the combination won’t work, and perhaps we will be happily surprised by the unlikely change. However, the new-look backline requires the contingency plan of an impactful bench. That is why the Boks have opted for a 5-3 split, and it is why the quality of those three backs is so crucial to Saturday’s Test.
Frans Steyn, in a phenomenal 40 minutes against the All Blacks, showed the world what he still has to offer as one of the best utility backs to have graced the game. In the same match, Elton Jantjies stepped up to the plate in his best Test performance to date and gave the coaches the comfort that he can be backed off the bench in big moments. His introduction at 10 with Pollard at 12 also appeared to trouble the All Black defence and has allowed for Pollard to provide cover at centre.
Herschel Jantjies gets his first start in a while and he has all the makings to thrive as a Test scrumhalf, but again the Boks enter this match with the comfort that Cobus Reinach has been on fire for Montpellier and impressive every time he’s played for the Boks this year.
Where the Springbok forwards substitutes will sustain the physicality and energy needed to put away a tough Welsh side in the second half, it is the composure and experience of the backs on the bench that will be key in combating the technical nous of the Welsh, especially if the starting combinations aren’t working.
Wales in recent years have become some of the Springboks toughest competition, physically and technically, and have beaten them with a very similar style of play. For the Springboks to break the curse that has characterised their travels to Cardiff they need to be better than Wales at this very style this weekend, and their ability to do so will largely depend on the utilisation of their bench.
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