Fired-up South Africa name unchanged 23-man squad for England Test
South Africans rarely need an excuse to feel aggrieved. This is especially true for the country’s most successful sports team. The Springboks’ World Cup wins in 1995, 2007 and 2019, as well as the series triumph over the British & Irish Lions this year, may have been built on a foundation of powerful forwards and a strong kicking game but they were fuelled by a desire to prove people wrong – to make real a blurred image of unity, to assuage a pervasive sense of national insecurity.
World Rugby provided grist to the mill this week. The game’s governing body released the shortlist for its annual awards and, despite South Africa sitting at the summit of its rankings, failed to put forward Jacques Nienaber or any Springbok for the men’s coach or player of the year.
“We obviously respect the process,” was Nienaber’s diplomatic response to the snub. “We’re very happy for the guys who got nominated. We wish all the nominees the best of luck.”
What is being said inside the dressing room is confidential. But there is little doubt that both the coach and his director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, will prod wounded egos to secure a first win in England since 2014 and with it a clean sweep of their European tour.
To do this they have stuck with the same matchday 23 as the one that beat Scotland 30-15 in Edinburgh last Saturday. A new half-back pairing will start, as the Montpellier duo of Handré Pollard and Cobus Reinach replace Elton Jantjies and Herschel Jantjies. Nienaber labelled these changes as “rotational” rather than the result of a shift in approach, but did say that Jantjies the fly-half offers more “versatility from the bench”.
One further change sees Franco Mostert make way for Lood de Jager in the second row. De Jager, who has overcome two serious shoulder surgeries and has played only two games for Sale Sharks this season, is the more conventional of the two locks. Mostert can play both tight and loose and gives Nienaber flexibility with his substitutions in the second half.
This is the key to South Africa’s strength. The much vaunted “Bomb Squad”, the nickname for their eight replacements, has been elevated to a mythological status back home. The Springboks have been down at half-time in six consecutive Tests since September, winning three of them. In 25 matches since November 2018 they have outscored or equalled their opponents in the second half on 23 occasions.
Nienaber changed his entire front row before half-time against Scotland and both sets of heavies will fancy their chances against a comparatively inexperienced England line without Ellis Genge and Jamie George. Not that Nienaber is leaving room for English excuses should his team win.
“Across the board, at all international teams, the injury tally is going up,” he said, batting away Owen Farrell’s absence by mentioning the injuries to Cheslin Kolbe, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk. Not that Nienaber will use this to fire up his charges. He’s got all the ammunition he’ll need.