Springboks sealed their own fate with questionable use of bench
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but the Springboks’ uninspired final quarter in their 22-17 loss to the British and Irish Lions should hardly have come as a surprise to new coach Jacques Nienaber.
Although the Springboks started as the stronger side, leading the match from the 14th to the 63rd minute, it was the Lions who finished better, winning the second half 19-5.
Some of that was down to luck. In the first half, South Africa were far better in the air, comfortably plucking high balls out the sky as they bombed to earth and leaving their opposition clutching at thin air. That reversed in the second stanza, however, with the Lions at one stage winning three contestable kicks in a row within the space of just a few minutes.
There were other factors at play, of course.
With four nations worth of players to pick from, the Lions were always going to be able to put together a stronger bench than their opposition – especially when the Springboks haven’t had the matches to really their next echelon on players behind their proven starters.
Somewhat surprisingly, the much-vaunted front-row trio of Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe – who were so important to the Springboks’ World Cup success in 2019 – were comfortably accounted for by their Lions opposition.
Less surprisingly, the Lions’ reserve playmakers added considerably more spark and nous to their side’s attacking strategy than their young South African opposition.
The Springboks trio of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux are the key drivers in the backline, with De Klerk and Le Roux taking on the majority of the duties and Pollard stepping in when called upon to add a helping hand.
The three have played over 140 test matches between them and were key players in the World Cup triumph.
In the dying minutes of the game, however, all three were off the park.
Le Roux’s absence from the 67th minute couldn’t be helped after the diminutive fullback was left feeling the effects of a questionable lifting tackle from reserve Lions flanker Hamish Watson and into his role at the back stepped 23-year-old Damian Willemse, with seven caps (and two starts) to his name.
Less than five minutes later, coach Nienaber made another change to his playmakers, with Elton Jantjies taking over from Pollard at No 10. Jantjies may have played 37 times for South Africa throughout his career, but the fact that those games have come over nine seasons with the side should indicate that he’s never fully convinced as a test-level player, despite his solid performances at Super Rugby level throughout that period.
Finally, with time almost up on the clock, off went De Klerk – one of the top three halfbacks in the world – and on came Herschel Jantjies, who’s played just 10 matches for the Springboks and made just a pair of starts.
By contrast, the Lions were able to employ the likes of Conor Murray, Owen Farrell and Liam Williams off the bench, although Stuart Hogg remained at fullback. That key 9-10-15 axis possessed over 250 test caps between them. The Springboks trio boasted barely 50.
Upon De Klerk’s departure, the delivery to the players situated in the backline took a huge knock for the Springboks and suddenly forwards weren’t able to clatter onto the ball at speed. The playmakers further out from the ruck also suffered.
While Warren Gatland was able to inject the likes of Murray and Farrell early in the match, to give them enough time to actually warm-up and make a difference to proceedings, the less experienced Springboks were thrown into the lion’s den – and the whole team suffered for it.
The Springboks don’t have access to the same depth of talent as the Lions – that was always going to be a problem – but throwing young players onto the pitch with just 10 minutes remaining is a recipe for disaster and Nienaber will likely reconsider his tactics for the second test.
Perhaps that means swapping someone like the maverick Elton Jantjies out for the more experienced Morne Steyn – a man who’s well versed in closing out tight matches.
Perhaps it means not going to the reserves at all, unless absolutely necessary.
Or perhaps it might require a more left-field approach, such as starting the younger trio and bringing on the experienced player later in the game to take control in the final 30 minutes.
One way or another, however, the Springboks need to get better delivery and better direction from their playmakers in the final 10 minutes of their final two tests.
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