Reigning Rugby World Cup champions South Africa are not ones to shy away from unique thinking.
Widely renowned as the most physically dominant team in the world, the Springboks’ reputation as innovators is often underrated and thrown into disregard behind the shadow of their mountain-moving team of giants.
Thus, when head coach Jacques Nienaber and Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus first unveiled the prospect of a 6 – 2 forwards and backs split on the bench, it was met with trepidation from the outside world.
Labelled in certain corners of the Rugby sphere as a bullying tactic, the intellectual element of the move was disregarded.
Yet, at the heart of the decision was the clear tactical advantage that the Boks hold over all other rugby-playing nations. This is, of course, their immense versatility playing squad, not simply just their abundance of giant men.
Starting with the backline, where, by and large, every player has the ability to cover more than just their first-choice position.
This flexibility negates the need for a third backline player, as a simple re-jig can solve just about any issue they encounter. Take, for example, the interchangeable nature of Damian Willemse, the uber-talented Stormers’ utility back. Now seemingly the first-choice fullback in the squad, his ability to slot into every other backline position bar scrumhalf is a weapon few other teams can boast. In fact, no more than twelve months ago, Willemse was regarded as the Springboks’ first-choice flyhalf due to the injury-enforced absence of Handre Pollard.
Prior to that, there was a debate centring around his role as a potential first-choice inside centre, such was his form for the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship.
Mirroring his backline counterpart is the Swiss Army knife that is Kwagga Smith. A former top-rate 7s star, Smith provides cover for both the backrow and centre positions. In perhaps Rugby Union’s closest comparison to the interchangeable nature of Rugby League, Smith is arguably the world’s first truly “Utility” player.
Whilst there have been forwards deputising as back and visa versa, Smith could realistically start as an inside centre if needs be.
Delving further into the Springboks’ deck of cards stacked with jokers is their controversial inclusion of four scrumhalves in the squad. Yet again, this selection is misleading, given the four athletes that make up this quad.
Selecting all four against Romania, the Boks started Sharks flyer Grant Williams on the wing, a position where, quite frankly, he could yet become a star. On face value alone, Williams is almost certainly inside the top five fastest players in the professional game today. Combining this pace with his sublime passing game around the ruck allowed the Boks to split the pitch, ensuring quick ruck ball with a scrumhalf always present.
Just behind Williams, albeit by no more than a smidge, is Cobus Reinach, who, too, is one of the quickest players in the game. Scoring yet another World Cup hattrick, Reinach looks to have leapfrogged Jaden Hendrikse as Faf de Klerk’s chief backup.
This, therefore, brings us to the pressing matter of South Africa’s upcoming clash with Ireland in Paris this Saturday.
Once again, revolutionising what many felt was already a somewhat risky proposition in the 6 – 2 split. Nienaber has announced a squat that now sees seven forwards and just one backline player on the bench.
Of course, this is not the first time the Boks have utilised the 7 – 1 split, with their now famous record victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in August being the first.
On that day in Southwest London, the South Africans dragged their greatest rival into deep water before mercilessly pulling them under.
In the end, the much-vaunted Rugby Championship-winning All Blacks could muster just a long try en route to an all-time record 35 – 7 defeat.
As the gas tank hit red for the starting Springbok pack, the reinforcements of a nearly fully fresh pack came trotting onto the Twickenham pitch. One can only imagine how the All Blacks forwards felt as they sucked in a few deep breaths in preparation for a fresh assault coming their way.
Now set to release a rampaging physical onslaught once again, the Springboks have named a 7 – 1 bench split for their clash with the one team ranked higher than them on the World Rugby rankings. Confirming their intentions, Nienaber said at the team announcement,
“We’re fortunate to have a match-fit squad and have been building depth and versatility for a while and believe this is the best combination for this match. For many of these players, this is their second or third World Cup, so they know what it takes to perform at this level, and we believe this team has the right balance of players to achieve what we would like to achieve in this match.
“We know it’s going to be a grind of a match, and we know we need to pitch up physically and mentally. We also need to start with intensity and stay focused until the final whistle.
“This is a massive game for both sides with an eye to progressing out of our pool, so we need to be extremely accurate in all areas of our game.” He concluded.
Ireland have, without a shadow of a doubt, been the best team in the world for the past twenty-four months. On a roll of fifteen consecutive victories and, perhaps even more impressively, twenty-eight wins out of thirty matches played since March 2021. This Irish side are serial winners that has beaten every team in the world.
On the way, Ireland have defeated the All Blacks 2 – 1 in a three-test series in New Zealand, won a Six Nations Grand Slam and have remained undefeated at home.
Of all of the accolades gathered along the way, Ireland’s rise to being regarded as the greatest attack side in the World is what makes this weekend’s clash with the Springboks’ notoriously stingy defence a fascinating watch.
Thus, the selection of South Africa’s 7 – 1 bench is what will headline all of the talking points ahead of the fixture.
— Springboks (@Springboks) September 19, 2023
Covering the backline is the duo of Smith and Reinach in what is one of the greatest calculated risks in World Cup history.
For this move to pay off, the Boks will look to stifle Ireland’s attack at source by slowing down their lightning-quick ruck ball. From here, the game plan will be to drag the Irish into an arm wrestle, the one area which rightly or wrongly is regarded as perhaps the only chink in their otherwise impenetrable armour.
The players selected add further weight to the notion that this is not only Plan A but, in fact, the only plan.
Starting with a powerhouse pack that includes some of the most physically imposing players in the game. The Springboks’ substitutes, whilst not lacking in the power department, consist of a handful of world-class jacklers capable of latching onto the ball.
This, in theory, will not only ensure a maintenance of power but also an upping of the tempo on the South African side and, in theory, a drop of intensity on the Irish side.
With the cards now laid bare on the table ahead of Saturday’s D-Day, the decision will either be lauded as a tactical masterstroke or lambasted as nothing more than a decision based on hubris.