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Springboks explain Etzebeth benching after 18 straight Tests starts

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

One constant of the Jacques Nienaber era in charge of the Springboks has been the selection of Eben Etzebeth to start in the second row. A 2019 World Cup winner when Rassie Erasmus was in charge with Nienaber as defence coach, the talisman forward has worn the No4 jersey in 23 of the 24 Test matches played by South Africa since the assistant coach took charge.

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Having only ever missed an August 2021 Rugby Championship match versus Argentina, Etzebeth arrived in Genoa this week having started the last 18 Springboks matches but that run of successive starts has now ended with his selection on the bench to play Italy this Saturday.

That Etzebeth demotion was understandably a topic of discussion when Nienaber unveiled a Springboks XV showing four changes from the side narrowly beaten by France in Marseille on Saturday. The naming of the seasoned lock as a sub was explained as rotational so that a different combination could be tried out.

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This approach resulted in Stormers teammates Marvin Orie and Salmaan Moerat, who have ten Test caps between them (Orie eight, Moerat two), being named as the lock partnership on this occasion with Etzebeth held in reserve if needed against an Italian outfit that last weekend shocked Australia in Florence.

“Yes, definitely, that [the Stormers combination] came up in the selection meeting when we discussed it. We felt a guy like Eben has served us in all the Test matches up to now, so it’s a purely rotational decision there, and also Salmaan has been training well and he deserves the opportunity and a chance.

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“We felt that combination at URC level gave us the opportunity to start with both of them and the nice thing is you still have Franco Mostert there playing at seven and then Eben can come off the bench. We are fortunate in terms of that.”

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Nienaber also insisted that Cheslin Kolbe and Malcolm Marx had shrugged off their respective injury concerns coming out of Marseille, Kolbe going through HIA protocols and Marx training fully on Monday despite a knee problem.

The Springboks went with a five/three forwards/backs split versus the French but they have now recalibrated to a six/two split to face the Italians. One of the backs subs is Manie Libbock and Nienaber explained why he has kept the Test rookie in reserve following last weekend’s short debut rather than start him at No10 against Italy.

“In terms of Manie, he is one injury away. He is our backup ten currently so he is really close. Like I said last week, the reason why we selected him is he is training well. He is now the fourth or fifth week that he has been with us so he is comfortable in the system and growing within our environment. He is slotting in nicely.”

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