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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

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'Close to crisis' - Springboks fans hung up on one major issue

By Ian Cameron
Siya Kolisi of the Springboks looks dejected after a try during The Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South African Springboks at Adelaide Oval on August 27, 2022 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

After weeks of the spotlight being on Ian Foster and his floundering All Blacks, Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber might be forgiven for squirming in his seat as he faces his own rising tide of criticism in South Africa.

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As has been pointed out by numerous commentators, the Springboks head coach’s winning ratio leaves plenty to be desired.  After last weekend’s loss in Adelaide, it sits at a paltry 58 per cent.

As outspoken rugby pundit Mark Keohane points out, when you factor in whether Rassie Erasmus was on the sidelines for the match or not, the statistics are even starker. According to Keohane, Nienaber has a winning ratio of just 36 per cent when the still-banned Erasmus has not been present on matchday.

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Yet for all that, the real problem for many South African fans is not Nienaber’s tenure as head coach that’s the issue, but rather the team’s questionable selection policy. To be more specific, the coaching ticket’s persistence with ageing stars.

Nienaber’s reluctance to open up about the inner workings of his selection policies hasn’t helped his cause – at least not with the SA public.

When asked recently why in-form hooker Malcolm Marx was started on the bench despite a man-of-the-match performance against the All Blacks in the first round of the Rugby Championship, Nienaber refused to be drawn. “There’s always a reason – a rugby reason why we did that, but that’s privileged,” said Nienaber. “The players all know [the reason]. Every single player knows why we went that route and there’s a very logical reason why we did that.”

Why so cryptic coach?

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Yet it’s the apparent selection loyalty to the old guard which many believe is stymying the development of the team ahead of their defence of the Rugby World Cup in France next year.

Vermeulen’s selection is a particular bug-bear for many, not least because South Africa have such a wealth of talent in the back row, not least URC Player of the Season Evan Roos. ‘Thor’ may be a Springbok icon and one returning from knee surgery – but time waits for no man and fans are growing impatient.

One fan noted “When you have as big a talent as Evan Roos, it’s madness to hold him back and not play him. He will invigorate our loose trio.”

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Alex Goldberg described the current selection policy as ‘terrible’: “Nienaber has lost the attitude Rassie brought. Boks are lost. Siya’s lack of visible captaincy is a concern. Can’t speak to tactics because we haven’t seen anything. Terrible selection policy. Dweba starting is madness. Senior players failing at every stage. Dark days for Boks.”

One fan accurately predicted Nienaber’s post-match interview after the loss to the Wallabies, which isn’t all that difficult considering it’s the same Nienaber uses every time the Springboks lose. “Mark my words. Post game Nienaber “We weren’t accurate,we made too many mistakes and gave away too many penalties”… Not “I messed up with team selection, I focused too much on kicking during training and I miss being able to hide behind Rassie”

Renowned commentator Martin Gillingham wrote: ‘The Springboks have lost half their Tests so far in 2022. Five of the six were at home. When assessing their progress (or lack of it) the bar is hung high. A year away from the World Cup, and with no obvious succession planning in selection, the world champions are close to crisis.”

One Springboks fan observed: “This when you know you have the wrong person at the helm; Roos, Fassie, Moodie, Grobbeler, Louw should be the players we are bringing onto the system, and get rid of your Vermeulen, Steyn etc”

The aforementioned Keohane struck a particularly gloomy note, writing: ‘Coaches live and die by their selections and right now Nienaber and Erasmus are dying. They are getting it wrong in refusing to even entertain there is another way when it comes to selections and who should start and finish.’

In a season of such unmitigated calamity for the All Blacks, one might reasonably have expected that the Springboks would be waiting in the wings to make hay while the rugby sun shone. It’s been quite the opposite, with the Boks being drawn into a very similar mire that Foster and his All Blacks have found themselves struggling through.

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