Loading their bench with seven forwards in an unprecedented move in their last preparation game hardly helped change the reputation of the cup holders, who open their title defense against Scotland on Sunday in Marseille.
But there are signs if you look beyond the hulking forward pack that South Africa’s five-year plan, aimed at building the deepest squad it has ever had, involves a more expansive outlook from the coaching duo of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber.
South Africa brought four try-scoring wingers to this World Cup when it was expected to have to sacrifice at least one of them for flyhalf backup. Manie Libbok, the only specialist 10 in the squad, plays more on intuition than structure, unlike any Springboks playmaker in recent memory.
It raises the possibility of the Boks moving more regularly away from just the set-piece dominance and highly repetitive tactical kicking that delivered the title four years ago. Head coach Nienaber said this week that had to happen.
“You must have the ability to score points, whereas in 2019 you could grind it out with a good defense, a good kicking game, a solid set-piece,” he said. “We had to adapt. I don’t think we’re the finished product yet, but we are working towards that.”
South Africa starts against a Scotland team that’s flown under the radar more than most coming to France. Its high-tempo style has worried the world’s top outfits recently and included a pulsating win over a second-string France from 21-3 down and with 14 men a month ago.
Scotland is up to No. 5 in the world and has the best team it has ever had, according to former player and World Rugby vice chairman John Jeffrey.
Many would agree. It still faces a Springboks juggernaut in Marseille.
“We know what will be coming our way. Each team has got different super-strengths,” Scotland assistant coach Pieter de Villiers said. “It’s about the team that is going to do the best in bringing those to the table and making sure we impose how we want to play. That’s really important.
“You can never hide from the set-piece (against South Africa). It is about taking them on, it’s always about that one-on-one physicality. There is no hiding.”
Scotland is well set to understand the typical South African mindset better than most. De Villiers, a South African-born former France forward, previously worked as the Springboks’ scrum coach. Scotland’s squad is sprinkled with South African-born players, notably front-row forwards Pierre Schoeman and WP Nel.
Schoeman was coached by Nienaber early in his career, as was Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe. Many of South Africa’s starting forward pack have worked with de Villiers, giving him the inside lane on them.
Schoeman and Van der Merwe will start against the Boks, while Nel is among the reserves.
Scotland’s rise has ensured a significant amount of homework on the part of the Springboks around the ability of flyhalf Finn Russell, who plays the kind of hard-to-read game that challenges any team’s planning. South Africa found that out when Russell helped the 2021 British and Irish Lions almost win the deciding third test in Cape Town.
“He’s a magician with ball in hand,” South Africa No. 8 Duane Vermeulen said. “He’s got a massive playbook in his head and is just a fantastic individual player. It’s a guy we really have to sit down and have video sessions (on) and have a look at what he does.”
Sunday’s game at Stade Velodrome has big-picture potential for the tournament, giving many – including top-ranked Ireland, which is also in Pool B — an indication of whether South Africa really has evolved. France and New Zealand will take note of Sunday, too, given the Springboks are possible quarterfinal opponents for them.
South Africa’s 2023 gameplan is still expected to start with brute-force forward strength, make no mistake. The question being if it starts and ends there.
“In this game, it’s all about dominance, it’s about physicality, it’s about using your opportunity,” Springboks forwards coach Deon Davids said. “If you combine that, that will bring out the character and the attitude that you want in a game.”
South Africa: Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, Manie Libbok, Faf de Klerk; Jasper Wiese, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Grant Williams, Willie le Roux.
Scotland: Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham, Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ben White; Jack Dempsey, Rory Darge, Jamie Ritchie (captain), Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, Zander Fagerson, George Turner, Pierre Schoeman. Reserves: Dave Cherry, Jamie Bhatti, WP Nel, Scott Cummings, Matt Fagerson, Ali Price, Cameron Redpath, Ollie Smith
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