The decision to start prop Ox Nche against the British & Irish Lions is a standout feature of a Springbok forward unit packed with mobility, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Of all the team selection predictions that typically floated around in the buildup to three-Test series kicking off in Cape Town this weekend, none would have correctly identified that the Bok coaches would opt for Nche and Trevor Nyakane as their starting props for the opening clash.
All expectation was that Steven Kitshoff would step into the No 1 jersey vacated by retired Beast Mtawarira, while Frans Malherbe has unequivocally emerged as the first-choice tighthead prop ever since the Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber tenure began in 2018.
Instead, the World Cup-winning duo will instead be deployed off the bench. A bench that has been restored to a more traditional five-three forwards-to-backs split as a result of a couple of backline players being short of game time.
Particularly when it comes to the props, perhaps too much shouldn’t be read into who starts or who comes on as a replacement, with the Bok coaches generally inclined to making a double switch early in the second half, resulting in a pretty even split in game time.
What the surprise selections up front do indicate, though, is that the Boks are looking for specific impact from their starting players, with Erasmus having highlighted several weeks ago that they had recognised the mobility and athleticism of the Lions forwards selected by Warren Gatland.
The Boks have seen this and gambled with: We see your forwards, and we’ll raise you Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Nyakane and Nche.
If the Springboks are able to contend with the high-paced and well-prepared Lions, they then have the option of turning to a more traditional blunt-force-trauma powergame brought to you by Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Lood de Jager and Rynhardt Elstadt.
At Tuesday’s team announcement media briefing, Nienaber explained some of the thinking behind selections, describing the front-row combination as an interchangeable “unit”.
“Ox [Nche] has specific things that he has to achieve starting the game for us and then, obviously, Kitsie coming off the bench brings different skills to the game in the second half.
“We could have gone with Kitshoff starting and Ox off the bench, but Ox brings good line speed and good dynamism.
“He is a loosehead that can chase with loose forwards in a kicking game. There is a specific role that we want Ox to achieve for us and it is the same with Trevor and then we will bring on Kitsie and Frans Malherbe in the second half.
“They [Kitshoff and Malherbe] have a specific role and skill set that they have to bring to the party. We are fortunate that we have quality props and a quality front row.”
And although several Bok players have only just come out of Covid-19-enforced isolation, Mbonambi insists they will not be undercooked.
“Joining the team on Monday we had to step it up physically and mentally, to match the intensity of the team. We’ve got a whole week together to get ready. We’ll be ready for battle. The people out there saying we’re underdone, all it will do is throw more petrol on the fire that is burning.”