The Springboks find themselves in an awkward position heading into their second Test against Australia, with several enforced changes bringing to light some grave concerns for coach Jacques Nienaber ahead of Rugby World Cup 2023.
For a squad that has been lauded for its depth, Nienaber and his coaching staff have failed to address glaring question marks in critical positions.
The concern begins at hooker, where Nienaber is blessed with two world-class players in Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx, who have been mainstays since Rassie Erasmus took over the side in 2018.
Whilst the duo have largely kept a good bill of health, the nature of rugby means injuries are inevitable. Mbonambi’s injury ahead of the Ellis Park Test against the All Blacks is a prime example of this and resulted in Nienaber making a telling error by starting Joseph Dweba.
The newly signed Stormer showed promise in the Springboks set up during the British & Irish Lions series, looking odds on to grow into a quality third hooker for the world champions.
However, deciding not to start Marx, who had put in the performance of his life a week earlier in Nelspruit, for the clash at Ellis Park and throwing Dweba in the deep end backfired significantly.
Dweba’s fundamental skills were exposed in his lineout throwing and scrummaging ability. Now it is not to say that the hooker does not have potential. Still, Nienaber effectively launched the 26-year-old into a baptism of fire from media and fans alike, inevitably stunting his confidence and possibly his development.
Why not start Marx, arguably the form hooker in the world and have Dweba get 30 minutes at the back end after the hard work is done and let him make the most of the platform laid to acclimatise to the Test scene?
Then give Dweba his start against Australia full of confidence in his ability and not coming off a media crucifixion. Now Nienaber finds himself in a situation where he would rather give Deon Fourie, a flanker who had his time in the front-row, a shot on the bench this weekend instead of Dweba.
The questionable decision-making extends beyond that when looking at the 42-man squad named for the Rugby Championship, where five scrum-halves were named and only three hookers.
Fundamentally both positions are crucial, but all five scrum-halves have at least one Test cap to their name. It would make more sense to pick an extra hooker in Bulls star Johan Grobbelaar, who has been in the set-up before and was a stand-out in the United Rugby Championship (URC). Then when crisis hits, as it has now, there is a fourth hooker with a boatload of potential to call on that will put the squad in much better stead heading into the World Cup.
Fourie is an outstanding player with phenomenal skills at the breakdown and will take on a Schalk Brits role heading into the showpiece event, but he does not need to be the back-up hooker.
Fly-half is another interesting soft point in the Springboks squad. Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies are only two out-and-out pivots in the set-up, and risks associated with such a limited selection have already caught up with the South Africans.
Of course, Damian Willemse is versatile and will start at 10 this weekend but going forward and looking to the World Cup, how can there be only two specialist fly-halves in the wider squad?
Injury is the first concern, and this week has underlined that, however, even before considering that it is no secret that Pollard is not his vintage self that saw near perfection time and again during the World Cup win. Instead, the pivot has been inconsistent and, at times, unreliable.
Meanwhile, Jantjies, who was also thrown in the deep end to start against Wales after months out with injury, is a questionable pick at Test level. The former Lion is a fantastic rugby player and one of the best fly-halves in attack, but his style has never gelled with the Springbok set-up to the extent it did at club level.
This begs the question, what about the World Cup? Granted, there were no outright bolters for a fly-half spot in the squad from the URC like an Evan Roos was for number eight, but picking two fly-halves that are not showing their best form is risky.
Bringing in Bulls fly-half Chris Smith could have been an option. The 27-year-old is not quite ready for Test rugby, but his fundamentals are brilliant, and he offers a similar package to Morne Steyn with solid kicking out of hand and at goal. Get him in the wider squad to train at high intensity and learn the systems because when disaster strikes, Smith would be far closer to the level he needs to be.
Willemse is a solution at fly-half and will likely excel this weekend, but if the 24-year-old suffered an injury or suspension for this week, Nienaber would be clutching at straws. Of course, there is always Frans Steyn to fill the void, but with all due respect to the legendary Springbok, it would be difficult to defend a World Cup with the 35-year-old at fly-half.
The situation is not as dire as this write-up suggests, but the consequences of decisions made now by the Springbok coaching staff will be magnified heading into France 2023, and Nienaber needs to be spot on if his side is to defend the title. There is a reason the Webb Ellis trophy has only been defended once.