Side Entry: Boks’ ‘starting’ 23 may need to be revised after All Blacks defeat

Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Forget having to make history by becoming the first team to win a Rugby World Cup after losing a pool match, the Springboks’ most pressing issue in the wake of their defeat to New Zealand in their tournament opener yesterday is the composition of what they consider to be their starting match-day 23.

Going into the blockbuster clash in Yokohama, the general consensus was that the 23 men who played against Japan in the final World Cup warm-up game a fortnight ago would be entrusted with taking on the play-offs.

But judging by the battered and bruised South African bodies towards the end of an absolutely epic match from a physicality and intensity perspective, Rassie Erasmus may already be forced to start thinking about substituting replacement prop Trevor Nyakane, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit and, heaven forbid, the omnipresent winger Cheslin Kolbe.

Of the three, Nyakane, who cut a dejected figure after coming on in the second half and having to be helped off with what looked like the same knee injury that forced him to cry off after coming on in the warm-up game against Japan, looks the most likely to be a permanent change.

He looked like a man whose World Cup was over. 

Thankfully, Du Toit and Kolbe, who were the Boks’ best players and seemed to struggle with their knee and ankle, respectively, finished the game, meaning their injuries could well be written off as bumps and bruises.

Those are potentially forced changes, but the alterations that may occupy the Boks’ coaching brains are the ones they may have to make unprompted. 

The first thing one notes about the Bok squad composition is that it is a team whose bench suggests they do not expect to be behind with a quarter of the game to go.

While the replacement forwards are built to step up intensity, having Frans Steyn – who has 60 caps, but has gone from powerful to a slow runner – among the backs hints at the Boks looking to close the game rather than chase it.

Once the game was there for the chasing with a half-time score of 17-3, the concerning thing was that Steyn – who was supposed to cover fly half and inside centre, ended up being the lone unused substitute.

But when starting standoff Handré Pollard didn’t have one of his better games by missing a penalty, spilling the high ball that led to the All Blacks’ second try, struggling to put his backs away and being as culpable as Faf de Klerk in kicking possession away, Erasmus couldn’t trust the experienced Steyn to come on because, for all his utility value, he’s never been seen as a fly half.

It’s one thing to have Schalk Brits in the team for his experience and positive energy, but having another ancestor/good-luck charm type player in Steyn and putting him in the starting 23 is asking for trouble, especially when his presence unbalances the squad.

If ever a game cried out for the variety of an Elton Jantjies coming off the bench, it was this one. 

Another area that would have concerned Erasmus and the rest of the management team was how two of the back three, Makazole Mapimpi and fullback Willie le Roux, leaked under the high ball. 

While there may be a call to try to play both Sbu Nkosi and Kolbe, as opposed to one of the two, what to do with the off-the-boil Le Roux is a mystery as there is absolutely no contingency plan in place for when he plays false notes.

Centre is another potential problem area, where Damian de Allende’s instinct, or instruction, to take it up renders Lukhanyo Am a defender and cleaner rather than a creator. 

They could move Am to inside centre and play Jesse Kriel outside him, but it looks like that would entirely disrupt how the Boks want to play.

. Follow me on Twitter @simxabanisa 

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