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Springboks on England's scrum, Manu at 14 and the 2019 RWC final

By Liam Heagney

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It was a question Springboks boss Jacques Nienaber sounded very much like he had his homework done for. There he was on Tuesday, within minutes of naming his XV for Saturday’s Autumn Nations Series finale versus England, when it was suggested that the South African front row starters and their bomb squad back up must be licking their lips about the probability of facing an opposition containing a starting loosehead and hooker with just four caps between them and further inexperience likely on the bench. 

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Not quite. Seated alongside the midfielder Lukhanyo Am, who was a bystander for the virtually held Springboks media briefing from London, Nienaber didn’t hesitate to give a reply that quickly contradicted the lips licking suggestion.

“I know a lot of people are talking about South Africa’s squad and the bomb squad but in my analysis of England in the last month of rugby that they have played, they had 21 scrums to exit from and to attack from and they got 14 penalties out of those 21 scrums. 

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“There are a lot of similarities between us and them and if you just look at the weekend you might notice what they did against Australia, they had four scrums and they scrummed three penalties, so 75 per cent conversion rate in terms of getting penalties. 

“Yes, it is going to be a big challenge for us, for our forwards and for our scrum, and we must keep our feet on the ground because if you look at the numbers that England are currently pushing out in terms of their scrum performance they are quite formidable and right up there.”

It was against Wales on November 6 when the Springboks’ decision to put a regular midfielder on the wing raised eyebrows, Jesse Kriel filling the vacancy left by the injured Cheslin Kolbe and the delayed arrival in the UK of Sbu Nkosi. Not since September 2018 had Kriel worn the No14 jersey – and the 27-old centre had only worn it one previously to that in his six-year Test career. England took that type of experiment a stage further when last weekend opting to put midfielder Manu Tuilagi on their right wing seven years his one and only previous start as a No14. 

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What did the Springboks boss Nienaber make of England ‘pick three midfielders’ tactic? “I thought Manu played 13 the majority of the time and I thought (Henry) Slade played full-back,” he reckoned. “There is some rotation in that. It’s horses for courses, they need certain individuals to fulfil certain roles and they play around with that. I don’t think one must look at the number on the back in terms of is it a traditional 14 or is he having a 14 on his back fulfilling the role of a 13? I just think it is horses for courses.”

It’s now two years since the Springboks blew England away in the final of the 2019 World Cup. Saturday at Twickenham will be the first meeting between the sides since then. The expectation is that this loss will be a motivating factor for any English player from that day in Yokohama who is still involved now. 

What is the Springboks perspective, though, on a game billed as a rematch of RWC 2019? “I won’t know what Eddie (Jones) is telling his (England) players. From our perspective the World Cup is so long ago, it’s water under the bridge. You can’t stay and live in that moment, you need to move on and we definitely did. It’s a new focus, new objectives and we are working towards France 2023. I don’t know if they would use that to fuel them, so it is tough for me to comment on that.

“Eddie is a brilliant coach. I have coached against him a couple of times and obviously, he knows South Africa quite well. He was involved with the Boks in 2007 and having Matt (Proudfoot, England assistant) there he will have a good understanding of how we will operate. It will be a big challenge for us.

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“In terms of the style of play, Eddie mentioned it this week, each country will play to its strength and we do the same and it’s the style we think will get us results. Everybody does it in the game, plays to their strength and style. We certainly try and do this with ours.”

 

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