The Springboks paid for questionable selections in Dublin and ZELIM NEL is hopeful the experiment will help catch Ireland at the 2023 World Cup.
Last week I said “Ireland want this win way more than the Boks do, we’re rolling the dice on some selections” when predicting the Boks would lose on Saturday, a comment that had nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the coaches.
From a media perspective, the November tour offered the Boks a chance to amend an up-and-down season by building on the momentum gained from a three-win end to the Rugby Championship.
The tour kicked off in Dublin, a homecoming of sorts for former Munster boss Rassie Erasmus whose return from suspension coincided with a match billed as “world champions versus world’s top-ranked team.”
Even a coach of limited experience would have recognised the threat of sideshows and hype to distract from the job at hand, things that would have jumped off the page at Erasmus when he first clapped eyes on the Boks’ 2022 schedule.
In a season that has been pockmarked with puzzling selections, this week was arguably always going to be the worst to unveil experimental changes, and yet experiment the Boks did.
Replacing veteran Frans Steyn and rookie Canan Moodie were the only unavoidable changes to the team that beat Argentina at Kings Park in September and both of those could easily have been solved by recalling the fit-again Damian Willemse and Cheslin Kolbe respectively. Willemse did return at flyhalf, but Erasmus decreed that this was the week Kolbe would make his Test debut at fullback, a decision that saw 79-cap fullback Willie le Roux dropped to the bench.
Kolbe hadn’t played Test rugby since July when he suffered a broken jaw in the second of two appearances against touring Wales, and the first of those two matches marked the dynamo’s first Bok action in 10 months dating back to a 29-10 victory against the Pumas in 2021.
The questionable timing of the positional switch for Kolbe was surprising; the implications for the team were concerning.
As stated, the Boks left for Europe on a mission to answer their critics, but they did so without the invaluable expertise of centre Lukhanyo Am, the key to South Africa’s high-pressure defence. Jesse Kriel, a solid player and an experienced Bok, is defensively not in the same echelon, and the absence of Am’s elite qualities were always going to be particularly felt against a team of Ireland’s technical prowess.
A slick and rapid attack tore the All Blacks to shreds in Ireland’s historic tour victory of New Zealand in July, and the world champions must have been expecting a midfield examination in Dublin.
Rather than pad Kriel with as much support as was available, Erasmus promoted Kurt-Lee Arendse to the right wing for his third Bok start in a new-look back three alongside Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi.
While they weren’t responsible for South Africa’s scrum and maul issues, Arendse was isolated in the new-look back three and missed more tackles than he made, Kolbe was yellow-carded making a clean-up tackle in the trams and the Bok backs finished with a woeful 75% tackle-completion rate. Kolbe’s underrated kicking skills were also poorly showcased as he tried to come to terms with the new role in difficult circumstances.
The odd selections made it clear last week that the world champions were headed to Dublin with more than just winning on the brain – a sure sign things would not go well when they came up against single-minded Ireland.
Nothing could separate the Boks and All Blacks in 2019 when the teams shared a 16-16 draw in Wellington and, months later in the rematch at the World Cup, Erasmus made just one change to that Bok matchday squad. The All Blacks knew what was coming and the Boks lost 23-13.
South Africa won’t see Ireland again until September next year when they rematch in a Pool B clash at Stade de France. Is it possible that Erasmus used Saturday’s Test to show Ireland something different to what he has planned for them in France?
The Boks would have gone into that match with the favourites tag if they’d won convincingly in Dublin, but now they will have the comfort of being labelled underdogs.
Could it be that the obvious pitfalls of launching the Kolbe experiment this week was part of a probe to see how Ireland would respond? Surely the Bok coaches clearly understood the potential implications to the defence and kicking game?
Or are the wheels coming off, has doubt crept in and are the Bok coaches are starting to panic?
I don’t think such is the case, and a looming confrontation with France promises to provide answers!