/ 7 October 2023

Tough choices ahead for Nienaber and Erasmus as quarters loom

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Game, bet and match: The Springboks in action against Tonga in their Rugby World Cup game in Marseille, France, on Sunday. (Christophe Simon/AFP)

So, prelims are over, and matric proper has yet to begin. It’s one of those frustrating weeks in which the accent is not on playing for the Springboks — their group games are over — but on preparation, tinkering, posing and solving questions. And surely some relaxation and rehab at their base in Toulon, France, will be thrown in.

With the fiendishly talented Lukhanyo Am returning to the squad this week, as a result of Makazole Mapimpi being injured, questions will naturally be asked of Jesse Kriel and his yeoman work at outside-centre. Kriel is a blood-and-thunder type of player, who has served his side well, but he’s no Am. 

The Sharks man might lack match fitness but he and his usual partner, Damian de Allende, were in the midfield when the Boks beat England in the World Cup final in Yokohama in 2019. They go together like bread and cheese, putu pap and chakalaka, brandy and Coke. It’s surprising the pair haven’t brought out a recipe book. Kriel’s days in the starting line-up might be numbered.

Meanwhile, the debate about Manie Libbok and Handré Pollard rages like a low-pressure cell wreaking havoc across the Western Cape. Each has their apologists, each their detractors. 

Pollard started against Tonga in the Boks’ sometimes scratchy 49-18 defeat of the Pacific Islanders in Marseille on Sunday night, with Libbok taking Pollard’s place after 50 minutes to give him a handy half-hour. 

Both kicked with confidence, Pollard succeeding with four out of four, while Libbok nailed three out of three. This, need we be reminded, was no World Cup quarter-final. In those, nerves start to tingle. Your kicking game can go awry.

Whatever the decision about who starts at fly-half against probable quarter-final opponents France, come Sunday week, the selection will affect who is chosen on the bench. 

Against France, you presumably need back up at both scrum-half and fly-half, which leaves room for only six forwards, three of whom will be a replacement front row. 

Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus aren’t men who strike one as having sleepless nights but there are some serious questions which are in need of answering in the days (and nights) to come.

The Springboks had some luck, and made some luck, against Tonga. Ever alert, Cobus Reinach sniped over from close while Tongan backs were turned, and Canaan Moodie, playing at outside centre, sprinted onto a ball that bounced off Vincent Koch’s shoulder to round a Tonga full-back as rooted to the turf as a tourist reading Google Maps on their phone.

The Boks went 21-3 ahead, thanks to Deon Fourie’s dot-down off the back of a driving maul and, after a half of toil, the men in green — how good to actually see them in green rather than aquamarine — had a points cushion that held them in good stead as Tonga made a spirited second-half comeback. 

In the end, they scored seven good tries to Tonga’s three. Messy, sometimes brutal, it was a job well done.

Talking about the possible composition of the Boks bench for the quarter-final, a note on Fourie, who turned 37 a couple of weeks ago, making him one of the oldest players in the tournament. Although an open-side flanker, he played at hooker against Tonga, and he’s beginning to find the kind of form that suggests that age is less important than the number on your jersey. 

With Malcolm Marx leaving the World Cup because of injury, the Boks are thin on cover for first-choice hooker  Bongi Mbonambi and Fourie, with his work ethic and love of battle in dark corners, might force his way onto the bench against France.

A gymnast at school (he says it adds flexibility to his burrowing in the tight-loose) in what was then Pietersburg, Fourie is one of those players impossible to dislike. To adapt a description by the late cricket writer Neville Cardus on WG Grace, Fourie seems “institutional” — born to wear the green and gold. 

It is one of the staples of tabloid sports writing to suggest he’ll be happy to make amends for being yellow-carded in the Boks’ 30-26 defeat by France last December, a sending-off that could have cost South Africa the match, but let’s just say he’ll savour the chance of having another go at France, if chosen.

While many of the quarter-final match-ups look settled, they aren’t set in stone, and the coming days will separate the eight teams who progress to the quarter-final exams from those who come back next time. 

Of significance here is France’s match against Italy in Lyon on Friday night. France head Pool A by three points over the All Blacks (who they beat in the tournament opener) and although they should beat Italy, an upset is not impossible. 

France scraped home 29-24 against Italy in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in the Six Nations in February and, at one stage, Italy held a narrow lead.

France should prevail on Friday night but, if they don’t, they should at least ensure a losing bonus point (by losing by less than seven points), which will boost them into the quarters. 

In Nantes on Saturday afternoon, Wales take on Georgia in Pool C, Wales all but having qualified with wins over Fiji, Australia and Portugal. 

In all likelihood, they will beat Georgia, thus topping the group, with Fiji’s match against the Portuguese on Sunday taking on significance after their stuttering 17-12 defeat of Georgia last weekend.

Coached by Frenchman Patrice Lagisquet, Portugal have worried several teams in Pool C, although Fiji have a better all-round game. They should beat Portugal, and qualify as the second-placed team from the pool behind Wales, the tournament’s surprise package after a rum run of results for coach Warren Gatland, including a 2023 Six Nations defeat by Italy.

After the Wales game on Saturday, England, who lead second-placed Argentina in Pool D by five points, take on Samoa. In the unlikely event they lose, England will still probably qualify, with the crucial game in the pool (as far as second place is concerned) being between Argentina and Japan in Nantes on Sunday.

Both Argentina and Japan have beaten Samoa and Chile, with Argentina ahead of Japan on a points difference of +32. A mountain higher than Fuji thus awaits the Japanese (and sundry Antipodean-qualified “Japanese”) because they will not only need to beat Argentina but will need to beat them by more than 30 points.

This leaves Ireland’s Pool B match against Scotland in Paris, at 9pm South African time, before the quarter-finals are decided. There is talk that Scotland could beat Ireland. 

This is nonsense. As Ireland demonstrated in their 13-8 win against South Africa two weekends ago, they are a side with remarkable adaptability and much of this revolves around fly-half Johnny Sexton. 

At least some of their attacking endeavours against the Springboks, were snuffed out by Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Faf de Klerk and even Cheslin Kolbe’s aggressive rush defence. Yet, after a painful first 20 minutes in which they lost all their line-outs, Ireland found a way to prevail. 

Unlike the South Africans, Sexton kicked his penalties. And they kept their shape and didn’t panic. They are a side of remarkable rugby literacy.

The All Blacks have been on a roll since their opening defeat at the hands of France, giving a sublime demonstration of running rugby in their 96-17 demolition of Italy in Lyon last Friday night, but if they come up against Ireland in the quarters, a win might be very difficult to burgle. 

The quarter-finals await, all of them mouth-watering.

Probable quarter-finals next weekend: Saturday, 14 October, 5pm: Wales vs Argentina; 9pm: Ireland vs New Zealand; Sunday, 15 October at 5pm: Fiji vs England; 9pm: France vs South Africa