Bok bench, Willemse empowered to inject energy

Jacques Nienaber says the form of Damian Willemse has warranted his selection and the Bok coaches’ backing to cover three backline positions in this Saturday’s second Test. CRAIG LEWIS reports.

A look at the Springboks’ bench for the highly anticipated rematch against the British & Irish Lions in Cape Town says a lot about the Boks’ intent for this weekend’s battle.

After an opportunity for players to bank some much-needed game time this past Saturday, the Springboks have been able to revert to the true Bomb Squad configuration for the bench, with six forwards and two backs offering substitution options.

It’s vastly different to what we saw over the weekend in terms of the attributes of this new-look bench.

Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff are now back in the starting lineup – which is somewhat injury-enforced due to the unavailability of Ox Nche – but the former pairing in the front row is the option the Boks went for in the opening 2019 World Cup match against the All Blacks.

As was also the case back then, Trevor Nyakane is now on the bench, while Vincent Koch – who was a key member of the Bomb Squad later in the competition – will also offer real dynamism in the second half.

But then come the Springbok trump cards: Marco van Staden is a vastly different loose forward to any others in the Bok squad, someone who hunts at the breakdown and serves as a metaphorical heat-seeking missile on defence.

He is someone who can offer real game-changing influence after a period of Bok blunt-force trauma in the first 40 to 50 minutes.

The same can be said for Kwagga Smith, who just seems far better suited to an impact role off the bench when he can lift the tempo and exploit any space that has opened up in broken play.

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Then there’s Willemse, who is effectively taking the baton from double World Cup-winner Frans Steyn in covering flyhalf, centre and fullback to allow for the Boks to be able to replace almost their entire forward pack at some stage or another.

For Willemse to be given this responsibility over Steyn, who is in the squad, is something that should not be overlooked.

As I wrote after the Boks’ first warm-up game against Georgia, Willemse’s high work rate and intensity in looking to get involved in play would have been particularly satisfying for the Springbok coaches.

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Willemse has accumulated eight Test caps since making his Bok debut in 2018, and his on-field game time has been rather sporadic. In that context, though, this period in the national set-up has undoubtedly been his most rewarding to date.

The responsibility and trust placed in him, particularly for a series of this magnitude and what is now a must-win second Test match, speaks volumes for his impressive progression.

That exact point was driven home by Nienaber at Tuesday’s team announcement media conference: “Damian has participated in almost all the games we’ve played, he’s been training as a 10, 12 and 15, similar to what Frans Steyn gave us at the World Cup, and I think his form amplifies his selection currently.

“He’s a versatile guy and now that he’s been introduced into various roles to fulfil for us we’re comfortable that he can do a good job at 10, 12 or 15. And with the inclusion of Marco and Kwagga on the bench, there should be some nice energy to inject in the second half.”

And there is the buzzword for the Boks and the Bomb Squad: energy. If injected effectively, it could be a game-changer on Saturday.

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Craig Lewis