An apparent spate of ‘niggles’ has forced Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber into at least four changes to the starting lineup for Saturday’s clash against the Wallabies in Sydney.
Still reeling from a 25-17 defeat in Adelaide last week, the Boks have lost the services of flank Pieter-Steph du Toit, flyhalf Handre Pollard, centre Lukhanyo Am to knee injuries and back-up No 10 Elton Jantjies to a hand injury.
Hooker Joseph Dweba and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk have been left out of the 23-man squad altogether while No 8 Duane Vermeulen, Loosehead Ox Nche and wing Warrick Gelant drop to the bench after starting last week.
Given the Boks under Nienaber and before him Rassie Erasmus, have often decided on their teams for certain games, weeks in advance, injuries to four senior players must have upset their best-laid plans.
Damian Willemse will start at flyhalf. He is now the only recognised flyhalf in the squad, which means the Boks will be forced into playing Frans Steyn at 10 if there is an early injury to Willemse.
Willie le Roux returns to fullback with Willemse’s shift, while exciting Bulls utility back Canan Moodie will make his Test debut on the right wing vacated by Gelant.
Willemse has been in good form and now is a settled member of the team. Although his flyhalf role will pose different questions and ask him to lead the line, there is a ripple of excitement at the prospect of Willemse and Le Roux on the pitch at the same time.
It’s not a coincidence that the Bok attacking play has looked sharpest and has had the most cutting edge when Le Roux and Willemse have operated in tandem.
“With both flyhalves injured, Damian was the natural choice at No 10 where he has slotted in for us a lot,” Nienaber said. “He is also becoming a settled player in our team with over 20 Test caps to his name.”
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It’s been a meteoric rise for the 19-year-old Moodie, who was one of the stars of the 2021/22 United Rugby Championship (URC) that saw the Bulls finish as runners-up.
Bulls coach Jake White described Moodie as one of the best young players he has ever coached. Although his debut is in, what could be termed an ‘experimental’ backline, it’s a great opportunity for the youngster. And he will come directly face-to-face with last week’s Wallaby hero (or villain for his shoulder charge on Makazole Mapimpi) Marika Koroibete.
Franco Mostert will start at blindside flank in Du Toit’s absence, in what is now becoming a fairly familiar role for the versatile lock/loose forward.
But in a strange call, veteran flank Deon Fourie, who started his career as a hooker before making the switch to loose forward six years ago, is the replacement hooker.
Malcolm Marx, after two appearances on the bench behind Dweba despite being the form hooker in world rugby, finally starts again. It’s a curious decision. Dweba was supposedly being picked to build up his experience, and has now been axed altogether for Fourie, who will be 36 next month. It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall in Bok selection meetings.
Fourie had an excellent URC season for the Stormers as a flank, which earned him a deserved Test debut against Wales in July. But hooker, and the scrumming and lineout disciplines that go with the job, will be under severe examination in the Test arena.
Marx though, presuming he isn’t injured early on, will have a huge role to play if the Boks are to keep their slim hopes of winning the Rugby Championship alive.
“This weekend we opted to make a few switches with Ox and Trevor (Nyakane) playing off the bench along with Deon Fourie. With Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm both settled with over 50 Test caps each, it was always our plan to give Joseph and Deon a chance at hooker, and this week Deon gets a run.”
Must win game
It is fast becoming a ‘must-win’ situation for Nienaber’s Boks. To have any chance of winning the Rugby Championship, they will have to win their remaining three matches in the competition.
But in the long-term, six of the Boks’ remaining seven Tests in 2022 are away from home. It’s possible, albeit unlikely that the Boks could lose five or six more games. Nienaber admitted there was pressure on him and the team but his focus was never on external voices.
“I think the pressure, for myself and the team, is the pressure we put on ourselves,” Nienaber said.
“We all feel pressure because you want to produce for your country, and you’re representing your country. The pressure is trying to get solutions for the next game. It’s not the outside pressure; it’s internal pressure.
“No coach can control the outside pressure. That will come, and it comes with the territory. If you start focusing on it, then you’re focusing on the wrong things. We focus on the things we want to get right, and that is the pressure.
“The external pressure will always be there, and this week it will be on us. It’s on all coaches. If you lose two games, there is going to be external pressure on you.”
After 11 wins in 19 matches in charge, Nienaber’s record is starting to slip although his team’s 2-1 series win over the British & Irish Lions in difficult Covid-19 circumstances and two wins, including a record 26-10 win, over the All Blacks does give him some credit.
“We had a thorough review of our performance against Australia last week, and the most disappointing aspect is that we were dominant in several areas of the game, but we struggled to show that on the scoreboard,” Nienaber said.
“This week is a final for us to stay in the competition and we are expecting Australia to be just as desperate, but so are we.
“We let ourselves down in the last two games and we are determined to rectify that this week and change our fortunes in Australia. We’ll prepare as well as possible this week to stay in the hunt for the title.” DM
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Reserves: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Kwagga Smith, 20 Duane Vermeulen, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Warrick Gelant