South Africa look set to progress to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals and could make a shift in tactics, moving away from their famed Bomb Squad for the knockout stages.
The Springboks popularised the six forwards and two backs on the bench during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and have regularly used the tactic since.
It was particularly effective in the knockout matches against Japan and Wales and even more so in the final as South Africa defeated England to lift the William Webb Ellis Cup for the third time.
Bok coaches Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus even went a step further in their warm-up match against the All Blacks at Twickenham, which they convincingly won 35-7, naming seven forwards on the bench after a late withdrawal before kick-off.
They backed the same bench make-up for the crucial Pool B clash against Ireland a fortnight ago, although they did fall to a 13-8 defeat on that occasion.
The original Bomb Squad
In 2019, the point of the 6-2 split was to maximise the output of the forwards and their influence on the game, with the Boks boasting possibly the two best forward packs in the world at the time.
One for fans of the @Springboks Bomb Squad!
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) April 20, 2023
And while the same could be argued about the 2023 Springboks, there are other factors to consider.
South Africa kicked the 2019 World Cup off with the standard 5-3 split on the bench in their opening game against the All Blacks.
However, in that defeat, they lost two key players to injury, Jesse Kriel and Trevor Nyakane.
The Bomb Squad would make its first appearance two matches later against Italy and then again throughout the knockout games, with scrum-half Herschel Jantjies and the versatile Frans Steyn covering the backline throughout.
The one clear difference between 2019 and 2023 was the quality of backline options the Springboks had at their disposal at the time.
At the time, Handre Pollard was the clear first-choice fly-half, with Elton Jantjies his deputy. Cobus Reinach and Herschel Jantjies were competing to fill the one back-up role behind starting scrum-half Faf de Klerk.
Elsewhere, while Warrick Gelant, Sbu Nkosi and Damian Willemse impressed during the pool stages, Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Willie le Roux were automatic selections. The same could be said of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am in the centres, particularly after Kriel’s injury.
Then return of Pollard and Am
The same cannot be said about the current Springbok backline, and the return of Pollard and Am have intensified the competition for starting roles.
Manie Libbok has been superb in his ability to run the Bok attack, but his inaccuracy off the tee means that Pollard, who made a good account of himself on return against Tonga, is already pressing for a start.
While the 2019 starting fly-half has proven pedigree off the tee in big matches, he does not offer the same attacking prowess as Libbok. He does, however, boast a more abrasive presence on defence and carrying threat to the line, giving the coaches a different style of play in the number 10 jumper.
De Allende and Am have been the Boks’ go-to centre pairing since 2019, but in the latter’s absence, Kriel has taken his opportunity with both hands. While Andre Esterhuizen and Canan Moodie have been brutally effective when given the opportunity, shining against New Zealand, Romania and Tonga.
Am was not at his best this year before sustaining the knee injury against Argentina, which ultimately led to him being omitted from the initial 33-man squad, but his performances at the last World Cup, during the British and Irish Lions Series and in 2022 will be forefront in the coaches’ minds.
Both Am and Pollard were regular starters for the Springboks under Erasmus and Nienaber before their injuries, and while others have impressed in their absence, the coaching staff may well be tempted to find places in their matchday 23 for the big games.
For Am, in particular, that could be on the bench as he has yet to play any matches since he sustained that injury against Argentina.
This would lead to a change to the make-up of the bench as one of Libbok or Pollard fills the number 22 jumper, with Am taking the 23 and one of the four scrum-halves at 21.
A 6-2 could work with the pair with the starting scrum-half, probably De Klerk, expected to go the full 80 with Cheslin Kolbe deputising, but that may seem too risky in this case.
The more logical make-up of the bench would likely include props Ox Nche and Trevor Nyakane with back-up hooker Deon Fourie. RG Snyman would provide lock cover for Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert, with Duane Vermuelen – if he is not starting – or Kwagga Smith rounding out the five.
When the @Springboks ‘Bomb Squad’ did their thing at scrum time on Sunday
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 13, 2023
Reinach, Jaden Hendrikse and Grant Williams would battle it out for De Klerk’s back-up, with Pollard or Libbok and Am completing the eight.
Ideal position to be in
The original Bomb Squad was designed to make the most of the Springboks’ best talents, and while it has been effective, it could be binned as the replacement bench is used for the same reason but with a different personnel.
Test coaches nowadays will regularly reiterate that modern rugby is a 23-man game, and you want your best 23 players featuring in knockout matches.
For South Africa, it’s hard to argue that a fully fit Pollard and Am are not two of the best 23 players in the current squad.
A move back to the conventional 5-3 split will have its downsides, as they will lose one extra spark off the bench, but the experience, leadership and big match temperament of the backs that they can select could negate that.
Still, the coaches are in the ideal position heading into the knockouts, where several players are making convincing claims to secure a spot in the matchday 23.