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Springboks can still win World Cup with Plan B

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa's flanker and captain Siya Kolisi (1st row on stage 6th R) poses for a photograph with the South Africa Rugby World Cup squad in Johannesburg on August 8, 2023. South Africa Rugby World Cup squad conists of: Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Jean Kleyn, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese, Deon Fourie, Franco Mostert, Faf de Klerk, Jaden Hendrikse, Cobus Reinach, Grant Williams, Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Damian de Allende, Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie. (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

The best thing about a bulletproof strategy is that there is little need for another one. Four years ago in Japan, South Africa bulldozed their opponents on their way to glory. Sure they lost to New Zealand in an epic contest that doesn’t get nearly the amount of airtime it deserves, but they hammered England, who only the week before trounced the All Blacks.

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What Rassie Erasmus was up to was no secret. The Bomb Squad arrived with all the subtlety and secrecy of a herd of elephants crashing through the African bush. It made a lot of noise and did a lot of damage. But you knew it was coming. You could probably set your watch to its arrival on the hour mark.

The pandemic impacted every country in the world but it was particularly harsh on South Africa. Strict lockdown measures meant the Springboks were forced to watch on as the rest of the rugby world returned to action. One columnist on this site has suggested that Jacques Nienaber, who replaced Erasmus as head coach after the World Cup triumph, was doing the equivalent of “sitting in a sauna” while he “sat on a perch with the [world number one] ranking frozen for [his team] like a boxer trying to pick fights to keep his belt.”

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This is an egregious misunderstanding of the dynamics in the country where countless businesses folded and the economy tanked. Many Springboks used their platform to help the country at large, most notably Captain Siya Kolisi who hand-delivered food packages to needy families around Cape Town.

Nienaber’s first game in charge was a hastily arranged warm-up match against Georgia ahead of a British & Irish Lions series that was almost scuppered at the 11th hour. This was hardly an ideal backdrop to blood new talent, forge a new identity and implement an alternative strategy as the defending champions embarked on their next World Cup cycle. Despite defeat in an ugly first Test, the Springboks leaned further into their pragmatic and pugilistic style to take the series 2-1.

Springbok World Cup
South Africa’s Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber (white cap) gestures next to hooker Bongi Mbonambi (#2) after defeating Argentina’s Los Pumas during their Rugby Union test match at Jose Amalfitani stadium in Buenos Aires, on August 5, 2023 in preparation for the upcoming 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. (Photo by JUAN MABROMATA / AFP) (Photo by JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images)

There may be more important things in sport than winning, but inspiration and entertainment are more easily found on victory parades. And though the Springboks’ record against the other top five ranked nations in the world over the last four years is short of what it should be, the players and coaches have always had this World Cup defence as their primary target.

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They’ve run France and Ireland close on their own patch and have beaten New Zealand. They’ll have to beat all three over the next month and half to win back their crown and there is every chance that they will. But in order to do so, they must fast-track and advance a game-plan that might have previously been considered their Plan B.

The loss of Handre Pollard cannot be underestimated. Besides Antoine Dupont for France, he is the most instrumental figure in any side with realistic ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris.

Pollard is South Africa’s most accomplished fly-half in the professional era and could also be the most complete 10 in the Springboks’ history. Whether he’s playing soft touches around the fringe and in the tight channels or dictating the tempo of the game from deep with range-finding kicks, he is the quintessential general on the pitch. He has the heft of a centre and is often used like one, charging at the line and providing stability on defence in the midfield. He can also clear out a ruck if required and fulfils that task better than any other fly-half in the world.

But he’s failed to prove his fitness and so Manie Libbok, a 26-year-old with less than 10 Test caps to his name, has been selected as the only bonafide 10 in the Springboks’ squad. He’s a Super Rugby winner and a supremely gifted athlete. He attacks the line, has a natural understanding of space around him and brings in runners off his shoulder better than anyone else available.

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However, he is a very different sort of 10 to Pollard and there, despite some wild arguments the Boks don’t actually need a fly-half but merely a goal kicker, the game around Libbok has to change.

In short, Plan A must be shifted to Plan B. With Libbok driving the bus, certain other positions in the backline ought to adapt as well. Willie le Roux’s importance is heightened as he would not only add value with ball in hand but would help provide Libbok with an extra set of eyes and an experienced brain behind them. Le Roux already marshals the back line and will be asked to step up at first receiver even more than he would have had Pollard stayed fit.

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Andre Esterhuizen might be a better option at 12 than regular starter Damian de Allende. Both achieve their primary function by barnstorming over the gainline but the former does so in a more brutalist manner. This is of course reductive and diminishes the all-round traits of both players, but there is no denying Esterhuizen has a leg up on his teammate when it comes to sheer heft.

That means a more creative player is needed at 13. Damian Willemse has enough quality to fulfil this task but Canan Moodie would seem to be the ideal candidate to replace the injured Lukhanyo Am. Like Jaque Fourie, Moodie has started life as a Test rugby player on the wing and the backfield but will surely transition soon. The upcoming clash against Wales would be the perfect opportunity to test out a new centre combination.

With this blend of guile and grunt outside him, Libbok would be able to play off either foot and in either direction. Still, he must be encouraged to express himself and has all the tools to ignite a Springbok backline that has been showing signs of their enterprise, but must now make the switch to an expansive and dynamic plan.

Plan B – the former Plan A – will always be available. The pack is still among the best and most powerful in the world. Once the ball emerges from the morass a wholly fresh blueprint must not only be implemented but trusted as well.

 

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9 Comments
C
Conrad 146 days ago

Nice to revisit this article after the fact. Especially the perspective on the pandemic, and then the considerations of individual players. Nice one, Dan.

G
GrahamVF 309 days ago

Guys I have done a bit of research on this Finn character. In one post he says he is an English supporter but he does not comment on English games or posts at all. He just trolls South African posts. I think he is one of the Mannenberg Maories who are just anti South African. Saffas just ignore him. He will go away. He has no substance whatsoever.

F
Flankly 310 days ago

Nick Mallett got it right, as usual.

It would be monumental for SA to win, even with the full squad available. To win, the big games would be Scotland and the QF (likely NZ or France), and then the final (likely NZ, France or Ireland). It would mean beating two of the top three teams in the KO stages, but complacency or bad luck against a very good Scottish team could mean a pool stage exit.

That would have been a big ask for SA with a full squad. What we have is a competitive first choice 23, but a huge concern around goal kicking and around injuries at 2, 10, 13 and 15.

Additionally we have this crazy 4 scrumhalf plan we can hope is a glimpse of something radical and brilliant. But it just looks like a foolish waste of a slot.

The platform of good defense, strong set pieces and gainline physicality will be as good as any team, and there will be decent tactical kicking and some lovely moments from the outside backs. But reliably scoring 5-10 points per quarter without a reliable goal kicker, with the loss of Am, and without the overall game management of Pollard, is a lot to ask against NZ, France or Ireland. And it gets worse if injuries start piling up.

Libbok is a good player, and great fun to watch. But I expect teams to target him and give him no space or time to operate.

Under the circumstances SA supporters should get used to the idea that the Boks will not retain the trophy.

f
finn 311 days ago

lol if south africa start moodie at 13 they are going to get completely torn to shreds.

I'm a huge fan of moodie, but 13 is a specialist position. You can't just decide to move a player there on a whim because you failed to properly develop depth over the last few years.

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