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Neil de Kock: The adjustment the Boks must make against Italy

By Neil de Kock
Faf De Klerk kicks for the Springboks. Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Despite back-to-back defeats against Ireland and France, I think the broader picture is the route to go in this instance with the World Cup a mere seven tests away. The reality is the Springboks were only three and four points off numbers one and two in the world.

Playing France in France was a valuable exercise which the Boks will take a lot from. After Pieter-Steph du Toit was red-carded in the 11th minute, many people expected the Boks to really suffer some carnage but the forwards were outstanding. It’s a squad full of fight and guys who are not willing to lie down easily. Captain Siya Kolisi again was brilliant and when he was substituted in the second half along with Faf de Klerk, who had just taken over the goal-kicking responsibilities and slammed one over from the touchline, it looked like the Bok management had the broader picture in mind. My question would be: Had it been a World Cup quarterfinal would the changes have taken place? I would think the answer would be probably no, given the way they were playing.

That said, it’s testimony to blooding players under circumstances which they might be exposed to in a few months’ time. Had the Boks left the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Faf and Siya on, who knows what might have happened. It was interesting when I did see those substitutions taking place at the time they did but fair play as there was clearly a plan in place. The coaches sent on those men and showed absolute faith in them to do the job.

The Boks’ inability to exit from their own 22 after scoring points, coupled with their line-out not firing on all cylinders played a part in the defeat. Against France, I don’t think Damian Willemse had too much pressure on him from an exit point of view. He had the ball in hand quite a bit and tried to find some space. But if you flip it on its head and look at how well Antoine Dupont exits, he boasts a rocket of a boot and every time he kicks the ball, he gets his team 40 metres up the field. It relieves pressure and makes a massive difference. That was something the Springboks didn’t do as effectively. As players, we always talk about the next job in terms of scoring and then not conceding. It’s not necessarily points but could be conceding territory or possession. Going forward, I believe the Springboks can prove more effective in that aspect of play.

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It’s good that Andre Esterhuizen has been handed a second test start. He has been in outstanding form for Harlequins in the Premiership. He’s a huge, physical monster who will ask questions of the Italian defenders. Damian de Allende shifts to outside centre but he’s no stranger to that position and you often find the Bok midfield interchanges on attack and defence. It’s not a bad idea to give De Allende a run at 13 because he may be required to do so when the chips are down. You’d rather have a very experienced head on the field even if it means he’s got to play a bit out of position than putting someone brand new in. The man missing in the No.13 jersey, Lukhanyo Am, has been nominated as World Player of the Year. He is one of the best players on the planet and hopefully he’ll walk away with it. But being nominated is testimony to how well he has played and how awesome he has been for the Springboks over the last couple of years.

In terms of the award, it may be a case of out of sight, out mind. It would be a great feather in Am’s cap if he wins World Player of the Year but, if he doesn’t, I don’t think he is going to lose too much sleep over it. He’s the kind of player and personality that wants to contribute to the team – it’s not about him. If Am doesn’t win it, I think Dupont is second in line. He has been one of the front-runners for the last couple of years and the French team functions on a different level with him. France are Six Nations champions, under him they are unbeaten in 11 tests and when you watch Dupont, he is on a different level to most other nines in France and sometimes even in world rugby.

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The prediction against Italy is that we should win and I believe we will. I don’t think there should be an expectation of a massive walloping but I want to see the Springboks put in a good performance and let the result take care of itself. Jaques Nienaber’s men need to be accurate in terms of execution, disciplined and the non-negotiable is always physicality. The Italians, much like Argentina, also relish the physicality so the Boks can’t let off by five percent in terms of level. For me, the way we approached Ireland and France is going to be no different to how we approach Italy in the 16th test meeting.

Following an 11-year career with Saracens, which saw him earn 264 caps, Neil de Kock now works in the rugby division at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. De Kock, who featured in 10 Test matches for the Springboks, provides RugbyPass with expert insight and opinion focusing on South Africa.

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