British and Irish Lions: South Africa bench split gives Warren Gatland food for thought ahead of First Test

·3-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Most international rugby team coaches announce their Saturday match-day squad 48 hours before kick-off. Some in the southern hemisphere name their team a day earlier.

Springbok boss Jacques Nienaber has opted for a more cavalier approach, boldly slamming his cards open face on the table for all to see. With four days still to run before the first Test against the British and Irish Lions in Cape Town, the world champions have nothing to hide.

“The team knew the team on Monday,” Nienaber said of his decision, downplaying any suggestion of mind games at work. “There is not any strategic thinking in terms of bringing it a day forward.”

Either way, there is plenty to analyse in a group of 23 that includes 17 players that beat England 32-12 in Yokohama in November 2019.

One absentee is Duane Vermeulen. The burly No 8 recovering from an ankle surgery is pivotal to the Springboks’ physical game plan. He is replaced by Albertus ‘Kwagga’ Smith, a 5 ft 11 in, 209 lb utility back who is seemingly the antithesis of the 6 ft 4in, 258 lb Vermeulen. 

Not so according to Nienaber: “If you look at Duane, he is a guy who can get momentum and stop momentum. But Kwagga does the same. He comes from a sevens background. He gets momentum with his evasion and skillset that he learned in sevens where they also have to handle big players. He gives us the same [as Vermeulen] but in a different style.”

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber has deviated from a strategy that secured the 2019 Rugby World Cup (Getty Images)
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber has deviated from a strategy that secured the 2019 Rugby World Cup (Getty Images)

Lions coach Warren Gatland raised eyebrows with his back row selections, opting for mobility and speed over strength and power. The Springboks now have a similar looking loose trio with captain Siya Kolisi - making a return after a positive covid test - and Pieter Steph du Toit occupying either flank.

Nienaber has elected for a 5-3 split on the bench, a departure from Rassie Erasmus’ World Cup winning strategy of loading the bench with six forwards.

The Springbok coach said that his decision was based on the lack of match sharpness from some of his key backs. Fly-half Handre Pollard, who will earn his 50th cap on Saturday, has battled with injuries this past year and also tested positive for covid recently. So too did winger Makazole Mapimpi.

Damian Willemse has been billed as the next Frans Steyn as a result of his versatility and could cover any number of positions in the backline. Elton Jantjies too has earned his place in the squad ahead of the more reliable Morne Steyn, likely the result of his adaptability.

The additional back on the bench means that more will be expected from the Springbok pack. During the World Cup, the ‘Bomb Squad’, as the six replacement forwards were known, ensured that the South Africans could maintain maximum pressure throughout the 80 minutes.

And though this has partially been walked back, the same mantra applies to the front row with Nienaber explaining his plans for the heavies up top.

“With the quality of front rowers we have available for selection, we almost see them as a pairing,” Nienaber said of the decision to select certain players to start and bench others.

“Is it more important to start and sing the anthem or be on the field when the final whistle goes? They know they work in tandem and have a specific role to play. The players understand that and have bought into it.”

Gatland is expected to name a 6-2 split on the bench, with Elliot Daly tasked with covering multiple rows. But with the Springbok team already named, and with Nienaber moving away from what worked so well in 2019, will the Lions coach deviate from his original plan? 

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