Nienaber: You must always work hard for Test caps

Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber has shed further light on the decision to play Damian Willemse ahead of Aphelele Fassi and Willie le Roux at fullback against Wales on Saturday. DYLAN JACK reports.

When it became apparent that Sbu Nkosi would not play in Saturday’s Test due to travel issues, there was plenty of debate over who should come into the starting lineup at wing, with many favouring the promising Fassi, who lit the field up on debut against Georgia earlier this year.

However, Willemse, who has 14 Test caps, will earn just his fourth start in the green and gold when he runs out at fullback in a rotational swap with Le Roux missing out entirely.

Meanwhile, Jesse Kriel will start on the right wing, with Fassi missing out on the match-day 23.

“Every player brings something different,” Nienaber said, when asked about the changes during a media conference.

“When we did the team announcement in front of the team, I said I was going to be as honest as I can be. Willie has played the majority of Test matches since 2018 and we know what we have with him. If we had to play a World Cup final on the weekend, we would probably select Willie because of his experience and what he has done for us in the past.

“This is an ideal situation to give Damian an opportunity. We haven’t given him an extended opportunity where he can actually play and settle himself into the fullback position. We felt that this was a great opportunity. We said to Willie that he must help us develop Damian and Aphelele. It’s a little side project and Willie is providing as much information as he can to them.

“Saying that, all three are different players with different skill sets. Obviously, they will have to bring their own specialness to the game and find a foothold in the game that suits their style.”

When probed further over whether the Springbok coaches see Willemse as the future fullback, Nienaber said they decided this weekend was an ideal to give him a well-deserved start.

“We will constantly try and put our France 2023 cap on, without making Test caps easy. You must always work hard to get a Test cap and the players do.

“When we announced the team, I asked Damian how many Tests he has played in and it was 13 going on 14 now. I asked him how many times he had started and he only has had three starts until now: England in 2018, then in 2019 he started against Canada and then he started this year against Argentina. So, you really have to work hard to get a start here.

“I had this conversation in front of Aphelele and the whole team. I said to Aphelele, that’s the thing, Damian has waited since 2018, he has been in our mix, working hard and really training well. He gets an opportunity here and there.

“We feel it’s time now. He has been in the mix for three years, training with us and knows our systems. We feel that he has deserved an opportunity. But that’s the nice thing about the squad. This conversation was in front of the whole team and a guy like Willie bought in completely. He will feed the little detail during the week in how he builds and prepares and pass it to these guys. It’s a wonderful position to be in.”

Nienaber added that while Fassi was disappointed to miss out, there still could be an opportunity for him to play in the remaining two Tests of the Outgoing Tour against Scotland and England.

“We had a nice discussion as coaches this morning. It’s tough to leave somebody out of this team currently and we are fortunate to be in that position. You really have to work hard, be patient and continue working hard to get a shot in the 23.

“It was tough because he obviously has skill sets and attributes that he brings to the party. On the question of will we play him on this tour, there will never be a never. Obviously, we have a specific plan for these three games in our heads. But, as you know with rugby, the ball is not round, it’s oval and you get real bouncers sometimes.

“If things go according to plan, there might be an opportunity. But things might change and we might go a completely different route. We have a plan in our head. It wasn’t an easy decision and it was a well-discussed topic in terms of this team selection. Winning is still our main priority.

“Everybody here takes it well, because we are open and honest. There are no one-on-ones. We literally do the team selection and explanation in front of everybody. So, Aphelele doesn’t wonder what I told Damian or Willie. We speak openly and honestly about the team selection in front of everybody so we all understand our thought process.

“It’s competitive, so there is disappointment. There must be disappointment. If you are not disappointed to not make the match-day 23, you shouldn’t be here. But the moment you are not selected, you job is not done. You now have another job, to prepare this team and to give input to the 23 that is selected.

“So Aphelele was disappointed, as was Willie not to be selected on a rotational basis, but you get over it quickly and get on with the next job.”

Photo: Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images

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