Jacques Nienaber said the Springboks considered the more traditional option of 5-3 and the slightly risky 6-2. Then they went 7-1 and all-in for the Rugby World Cup final and Nienaber’s last game as coach of South Africa.
Nienaber and coaching compadre Rassie Erasmus — South Africa’s director of rugby — gambled on the high-risk, high-reward strategy of putting seven forwards and just one backline player on their bench for rugby’s biggest game against old rival New Zealand.
It’s something that only the Springboks have been brave enough, stubborn enough, or foolish enough to do in top-level rugby. They will roll it out for just the third time on Saturday at Stade de France where there is no room for failed experiments.
“The team is not 15 (players), it is 23,” Nienaber said, underlying South Africa’s belief that its reserves are as crucial as its starting players, especially the forwards. “We always say that. When you do squad selection there are a lot of things that influence that from medical to past performances and a lot of analysis into New Zealand and where we think we can get the edge on them.
“Then the discussions start between the coaches and it goes from a 5-3 to a 6-2 to a 7-1, then it goes back again. It is not a 10-minute discussion, it is hours and hours.”
An overtly forward-heavy bench has been criticized by some as reducing rugby to an uninventive physical barrage — normally of Springboks big men.
When South Africa first used the 7-1 split against New Zealand in a World Cup warmup in August, former Scotland coach Matt Williams led the disapproval by accusing the Springboks on a rugby podcast show of “abusing the bench.”
“They had seven forwards. Seven forwards … really? Seriously?” Williams posed. “(Governing body) World Rugby has just got to act on this.”
Nienaber said he’s simply selecting “a team that you think can get a result.”
“The 23 we selected for a reason and the reason is we think they can deliver and win us a back-to-back World Cup.”
Wherever the trophy ends up on Saturday night, Nienaber and Erasmus will sign off their partnership with another semi-revolutionary move having arguably redefined areas of rugby in their five years with the Springboks, which has already seen one World Cup won in 2019.
In that tournament, South Africa relentlessly pursued the high contestable kick theory, now used widely by others. The lineout maul was a crucial try-scoring weapon for the Springboks four years ago, as it is now across rugby.
South Africa’s “bomb squad” of forwards on the bench — effectively an entire second pack — was also born in 2019 and South Africa has stretched the makeup of the reserves before when it started using a 6-2 forwards-backs split.
“The 6-2 a couple of years back was new to people and now a lot of teams are doing it,” Erasmus said earlier at the World Cup.
Saturday’s Springboks bomb squad is as big as it’s ever been, though.
When South Africa first trialed the 7-1 two months ago, it resulted in a record 35-7 win for the Springboks over the All Blacks, who were down to 14 men with forward Scott Barrett’s red card. The 7-1 didn’t come off when Ireland won 13-8 over South Africa in the pool stage.
So, it’s won one, lost one with the 7-1 split and the Rugby World Cup final is the decisive game — in every way — for an extra-big Springboks bomb set by Nienaber and Erasmus for the last time.
“It would be good to take some gas out of that bomb, wouldn’t it?” New Zealand forwards coach Jason Ryan said.
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