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'Masterful coaching': Ex All Black sees genius in Nienaber and Erasmus plan

By Josh Raisey
Jacques Nienaber, Head Coach of South Africa, speaks with Rassie Erasmus prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Tonga at Stade Velodrome on October 01, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

From injuries to results, plenty of people would think that South Africa’s World Cup title defence has not gone to plan so far. But former All Black Andrew Mehrtens believes an intricate plan devised by Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus is falling into place nicely.

While no coach would want to see any players get injured, it is a reality of rugby and World Cups that casualties will occur as the tournament progresses. Speaking on the Official Rugby World Cup 2023 podcast this week, the 70-cap All Black said that injuries in the Springbok camp have allowed the coaches to call upon their favoured fly-half, Handre Pollard, while also sending a message to the 2019 World Cup winner.

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Despite originally missing out on South Africa’s 33-man World Cup squad, Pollard was called up as a replacement for injured hooker Malcolm Marx, and is now expected by many to start ahead of Manie Libbok going forward. Mehrtens believes this was the plan all along by Nienaber and Erasmus, but they have also been given the opportunity to send a shot across the bows of a player “who has got comfortable in his position”.

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“I wondered if it was just masterful coaching,” the 50-year-old said. “You know at a World Cup you are going to have injuries and you are going to be able to replace players. Did they know? We have seen it with New Zealand as well, they have brought in Ethan Blackadder. You know there is going to be some attrition on the way through. Maybe you’ve got a senior guy who has got comfortable in his position and he gets a bit of a jab, doesn’t get picked but he is going to turn up at the business end of the competition, maybe it was that.

“Libbok is a fantastic and exciting player. Pollard is just awesome, already a World Cup winner, proven success.”

The fact that a hooker was replaced by a fly-half, leaving them threadbare in the No2 department, suggests there is some veracity to what Mehrtens is saying.  Then again, this plan may have all been reactionary after South Africa’s kicking struggles in their loss to Ireland at the Stade de France.

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Former Scotland No8 Johnnie Beattie and 2019 World Cup winner Schalk Brits joined the podcast as well, where they gave their takes on who will start out of the two fly-halves for South Africa.

“I’ll make a prediction,” the former Saracen said. “They will start with Pollard, they’ll go with a six-two split and they will put Manie on the bench. The backline moves better with Libook there, he brings some x-factor to that team. Maybe the six-two split is a better combination for us.”

Beattie added: “Libbok has been phenomenal in the URC with his franchise in South Africa but if you’re ticking under 80 per cent on your top-level goalkicker you’re leaving 11 points out there against Ireland. You take those points, you win the game. I fully expect Pollard to be their starter.”

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Jon 1 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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