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Cunning Nienaber shuffle elevates - not reduces - series with Wales

By Daniel Gallan
(Photo by Geoff Caddick/AFP via Getty Images)

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Hold the phone. This isn’t what was promised on the tin. Springboks rugby doesn’t do whacky. It doesn’t do zany or experimental or wild. Springboks rugby is all about box kicks and murderous mauls and big men running over smaller men. That is what they do and we feel safe when they do it. Sure, there is space for some fleet-footed dazzler out wide, but he is a luxury player, nothing more than a string bend in a guitar solo that otherwise fits very neatly into the composition of a well-rehearsed song.

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At least that is what Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber more or less said at the start of this series against Wales. He declared loudly and with a straight face that Test rugby is no place for experimentation. He set his jaw and without any semblance of insincerity stated that his team had a brand to uphold.

So what’s up with this latest Springboks team? There are six uncapped players in the second Test 23. Three last played in 2019. Two haven’t donned the green and gold since the Lions tour last year. Only four have kept their place from last week’s scrappy 32-29 win in Pretoria. To misquote Ron Burgundy, I’m not mad, I’m impressed. 

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Wales captain Dan Biggar speaks about the first-Test ‘niggle’ at Loftus Versfeld
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Wales captain Dan Biggar speaks about the first-Test ‘niggle’ at Loftus Versfeld

It should be noted that there are eight World Cup winners in the squad, that they are captained by Handre Pollard who just won the Top 14 with Montpellier, and that the side is bolstered by the return of the 2019 world player of the year, Pieter-Steph du Toit. But it’s easier, perhaps more appealing, to overlook the familiar names and focus instead on those who are playing for more than just a Test victory.

Evan Roos at No8 is the most exciting of the newbies. The 22-year-old Stormers star shone in the United Rugby Championship and has looked born for the green and gold all season. He made 41 more successful carries and beat eleven more defenders than anyone else. He also won the fifth-most turnovers and made the eighth-most tackles in the competition. 

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The hot-stepping Kurt-Lee Arendse is the other uncapped player in the starting line-up with a further four on the bench, but there are other names littered across the squad that has been received with a sense of anticipation. Andre Esterhuizen starts at inside centre, eager to prove that his club form for Harlequins in England can translate to international level.

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Warrick Gelant and Jaden Hendrikse are out to underline their credentials as linchpins capable of starting and finishing games while sticking to a tight game plan. And Thomas du Toit and Joseph Dweba will want to show that there are more than six world-class front-rowers in South Africa.

But this is less about the players and more about what their selection says of Nienaber’s plan 15 months out from a World Cup title defence. It also poses some interesting questions for a Welsh outfit that really can’t afford to lose to a team already labelled as second-stringers.

Edging the first Test has given Nienaber the luxury of rotation. He will be confident that his first-choice picks should get the job done in the third match if the need arises. It’s rare that fringe players are given game time in a contest that matters. The series has yet to be decided and Wales will treat this as a must-win encounter.

Besides – and this is a crucial point – all of the fresh faces have been placed alongside an experienced head. Roos has 88 Test caps alongside him in the back row with Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marcel Coetzee for company. Hendrikse’s first port of call at fly-half is Pollard and his 60 caps. Jesse Kriel – 51 caps – is positioned in the middle of an inexperienced backline while Dweba will pack down alongside Trevor Nyakane playing his 55th Test. This is not a haphazardly selected side. 

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As for Wales, Saturday’s showdown could be the most important match of Wayne Pivac’s career. Few expected his team to win this series. Many expected his team to lose every match by a considerable margin, but that was before Nienaber pulled a Kansas City Shuffle. Now, all the pressure is on Dan Biggar and his mates.

Some Welsh writers and fans have argued that Nienaber’s selection devalues the series. They have suggested this implies that the South Africans regard Wales as a second-rate power not worthy of their household names. 

It’s understood where they are coming from. South Africa and Wales are two countries that need very little encouragement to feel aggrieved. National insecurities cut deep and we have both been on the receiving end of English dominion. It’s on the rugby field that the collective self-doubt is banished. If the roles had been reversed South Africans would likely consider this a sleight as well.

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But devaluing the integrity of the series? I don’t think so. A win would certainly be caveated but then again, isn’t every victory? Isn’t there always a referee to blame, a particular player at fault or a moment that can be pinpointed as the reason why your side lost? There is no pleasing some people and Welsh fans should remind themselves that this is still a strong South African team, no matter how many accumulative caps they have.

A defeat would of course sting, it may even be humiliating, but let’s remind ourselves that a full-strength Wales team succumbed to Italy at home for the first time only a few months ago. We’re hardly in the midst of a golden age of Welsh rugby. Would a reverse in Bloemfontein really rank among the worst days in Wales’ 141-year history?

If anything, what the Springboks have done elevates the series. It introduces us to new names and might serve up a greater spectacle filled with protagonists on the hunt for glory. It might also force Pivac’s hand and culminate in a bit of razzmatazz from the visitors. 

Whatever transpires, we now know one thing’s for sure: Nienaber is a lot more cunning than he lets on. Then again, he has been rubbing shoulders with Rassie Erasmus for the better part of three decades.

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